Parkwood patient takes giant steps – physically, academically

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Coming to Parkwood Hospital in London, Marilyn Carr-Harris had two goals. The first was to walk again. The second – to be several steps closer to her masters degree by the time she did so.

Remarkably, the University of Toronto student achieved both goals. After three months as an inpatient in the spinal cord injury rehabilitation program, Marilyn walked out of Parkwood, part of St. Joseph’s Health Care, London, without a cane. She heads back to Toronto having lost little ground in the pursuit of her Masters Degree, thanks to special arrangements made at Parkwood to provide Marilyn with wireless internet access. Throughout her stay, the 27-year-old squeezed in lectures, conducted research and handed in assignments between therapy sessions – all from Parkwood.

“School has been an important part of the rehabilitation process for me. It helped me stay motivated. I couldn’t just focus on what was going on with me physically. If my body wasn’t going to be in the best condition, I knew I had my mind and that I would succeed at something. School is a way of coping for me. My career aspirations were driving me, Marilyn says.”

Four years ago, while attending university in British Columbia (B.C.), Marilyn began noticing a weakness in her legs. By the time she moved to Toronto in 2006 to begin her Masters in Information Studies, Marilyn was in a wheelchair.

The diagnosis was myelopathy, a spinal cord disorder, but the cause was a mystery. In Toronto, Marilyn tried inpatient rehabilitation without great success. But it was there she was referred to Dr. Angelika Hahn, a neurologist at London Health Sciences Centre, who suggested one more round of rehabilitation at Parkwood.

Despite long therapy days at Parkwood, Marilyn was determined to continue work on her degree. Provided with wireless Internet access and study space, the aspiring fine arts librarian found the time and energy to continue with three university courses, with some accommodations from her faculty.

In fact, says Marilyn, her disability made her a better student and her studies made her a better patient. While learning about the vital role of information professionals, Marilyn was discovering major gaps in consumer health information, which she needed as someone coping with a disability. She found herself looking at her life and her career from a unique perspective.

“Being disabled has changed my perspective of the world,” she explains. “I know more than ever that knowledge is power and that, as information professionals, we create access to information that helps people make life decisions and advocate for themselves. I found strong parallels between my studies and my objective to walk again.”

Marilyn’s tremendous progress in walking can be found on YouTube, where she regularly posted video updates for her family in B.C. Other Parkwood patients, have been inspired by watching her progress. When Marilyn recently walked into the physiotherapy gym without a cane, she was greeted by applause. “I can hardly believe it myself,” says the former dancer.

With one semester left at school, Marilyn plans to head back to B.C. and begin her job hunt. Her future career is on track. So too is her health. Marilyn is expected to make a full recovery. “I feel like I’m starting a whole new life.”