St. Michael’s occupational therapist Cecilia Wan and social worker Mari Vella operate as a tag-team, ensuring MS patients patients get the physical, cognitive, mental, and functional support they need to get on with their lives.
If a patient needs a walker or wheelchair for example, Cecilia will source it, arrange to have it delivered, make sure her patient knows how to use it, and find ways to offset the device’s cost.
And while she is taking care of the practicalities, Cecilia is also watching for signs of distress.
“The question is not just, ‘Do you need a walker?’ It’s ‘Are you psychologically ready for a walker?’ says Cecilia. “Often patients are self-blaming. They say, ‘Maybe I just haven’t tried hard enough to walk on my own.’”
But in her 10 years as an occupational therapist, she knows how hard patients work to walk. The self-blame, she says, is misplaced.
While she never hesitates to share this professional opinion with them, she knows when to call for backup: “I’ll say, ‘Mari is in the clinic. Why don’t I just call her in?’”
Mari’s deep expertise in counselling includes cognitive behavioural therapy, crisis management and mindfulness techniques. Plus, she’s an exceptionally good listener.
Mari recently pulled out all the stops for Omar*, a man in his 50s with primary progressive MS who uses a power wheelchair.
“MS has taken a lot away from him,” says Mari. “He believes that his family is sad because of him. He sees the disease as his fault.”
Mari has been counselling Omar for months, getting him to work through frustrations he doesn’t want to burden his family with – like how it feels to sit in a wheelchair while his wife and children shovel snow.
“We’d talk for an hour at a time and I wasn’t sure I was changing anything for him,” says Mari.
But then one day Omar came in and showed Mari a photo on his phone of an IKEA bed he’d put together.
“He said, ‘I did this. It took me four weeks, but I did it!’ It was meaningful because he did it for his daughter.”
But neither Mari nor Cecilia takes credit for these successes. They are both at pains to point out that their patients are the ones doing the hard work.
“When patients get stronger, I tell them ‘I’m not strengthening your muscles, you are,’” says Cecilia.
Or as Mari puts it: “Patients think we’ll solve their problems. But all we are doing is bringing out the strengths they already have.”
*Out of concern for privacy, the patient’s name has been changed. The person shown in the above images is not an actual patient.