When Opelika’s Rehab Works occupational therapist and Manager Mallory Payne dropped her daughter off for the first day of daycare, she had no idea she would run into one of her former patients.

“Cassie! Is that you?” Payne said.

And without another word, the two embraced in a hug.

Cassie Wyrick was 18 when her parents brought her into Rehab Works. Wyrick had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash, resulting in seven cracks in her skull. At the time, doctors had given her a 4% chance to live, and even then, she would likely live in a vegetative state.

Now, just four years later, Wyrick is the daycare teacher of Payne’s daughter, thanks in part to Payne’s dedication to her patients.

“I’m able to change her kid’s diaper now, and I couldn’t even change my own clothes that well before [I worked with Mallory],” Wyrick said. “She goes above and beyond for her patients, and I would say that because even though I can’t remember much in detail, she remembers me. She still asks about me and calls me by name.”

Anyone who has walked through the doors of Rehab Works in the 11 years that Payne has worked there is sure to leave better than they came, and her coworkers and patients are a testament of that.

Payne, 36, has three children, works as an occupational therapist and has recently added a manager title at Rehab Works. She still makes time to serve Cornerstone Church and the Opelika-Auburn community faithfully.

 “I don’t use a cookie-cutter approach to therapy,” Payne said. “[For example] I don’t treat all my patients that have had strokes the same. I do try to listen to what they’re telling me, and so I do client-centered therapy in order to help them the best that I can.”

Payne earned her undergraduate degree in athletic training at Troy University before receiving her master’s degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in occupational therapy. Growing up seeing her aunt battle the progression of multiple sclerosis — combined with her love for sports and her desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps — led Payne to want to become an occupational therapist.

Now, Payne is reaping the benefits of her work. Her diligence in her craft is rewarded by seeing her patients get better and regain their former abilities.

“I really enjoy seeing a patient that comes in on their first time, and they might not be able to use that body part that I’m working with them initially, but by the time they’re done, they’ve gotten back to doing mostly everything they could do before,” Payne said. “I like to know that they’ve gotten back to work: They’re able to make an income, and that is fulfilling to the patient, so that’s fulfilling to me.”

According to one of her coworkers, physical therapist Jessica Ust, Payne shows her love for the community by sacrificing her own time to better serve others around her the best she can.

“If somebody needs a certain piece of equipment, she’ll do extra research on that when a lot of times people don’t take that extra time,” Ust said. “If we have a patient with a diagnosis we don’t see often, she’s doing the extra work so that she knows what she can best do for that individual.”

Payne stays prepared for whoever might walk into Rehab Works on any given day — a necessary ingredient to her extraordinary work. She is always ready for whoever comes to her in need, whether that be a teenager who was in a car accident, a 4-year-old in her Sunday school class or an older patient trying to maintain their abilities around the house.

In 2018, Payne’s eventual patient Markeyla Williams could not foresee she would need occupational therapy to be able to sit up straight at age 22.

But, after Williams finished doing her hair one afternoon at her home in Auburn, she went out to be with her family. When one of her cousins at the gathering asked for a lighter, Williams went to retrieve one from her car.

“It’s old,” Williams said.  “It probably doesn’t even work.”

But she gave it a try anyways, and when she did, all Williams remembers is a “whoosh” of flames overtaking her face and spreading down her arms. The oils in her hair ignited the flame.

Williams ended up with severe burns on her face and arms, and it took eight surgeries and four months in the hospitals of Birmingham before she could return home to her 1-year-old son.

When she did so, she still couldn’t use her arms or hands well, and she couldn’t sit up straight because skin was taken from her legs. But she was eager to start therapy.

While Williams is still recovering by the day, she is back to working for Capital One as a customer service representative after earning a degree from Alabama A&M University.

She can now extend her arms, grab things and walk comfortably; in addition, she is healing — mentally and emotionally. Williams has moved past her anxiety about being around heat and can now do things such as cooking and she said that wouldn’t be the case without Payne pushing her to do more than what she thought she was capable of.

Markeyla Williams and her son, Montarious Hill Jr. (5), take a picture before a mother-and-son dance. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED TO THE OBSERVER

One of Williams’ favorite hobbies before her injury was braiding hair. After her injury, she gave up on the idea of braiding again, but Payne never did.

One day at therapy, Payne pulled out yarn and tied it to the door, while Williams looked on with a raised eyebrow.

“OK, let me see you braid,” Payne said. “You said that you wanted to braid again, so let me see you braid.”

Williams credits that determination and Payne’s “motherly instincts” to what makes her great at what she does.

“A lot of times we’d do minimal stuff like sitting at the table and writing or other little things, but she incorporated things into it that I was interested in and what I wanted, and that made it so much easier,” Williams said. “She could’ve just made out her plan and stuck to it and just let me go on about my way, but no. She was just being very considerate, and I always appreciate her.”

One thing that sticks out about Payne is that she never simply does her job and goes her own way. Several years after they quit therapy, Wyrick and Williams are both still in contact with Payne. Wyrick sees her old therapist when Payne picks up her daughter from daycare, and Payne asks about Wyrick when she runs into her sister at the Opelika soccer fields, where her children play.

Williams still updates Payne on her recovery and anything that’s going on in her life, and they both update each other on their children. The two are Facebook friends, and Williams even stops by Rehab Works to see Payne whenever she passes by.

“She’s one of those people that, if you write a book, she’s going to be a main character,” Williams said. “Kind, gentle, compassionate, strong, patient … if there was a word to describe all of that, that would be her.”