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To Haiti and Back

In this interview, Dr. Colleen O’Connell of New Brunswick discusses her amazing life, from her days as a teenage lifeguard helping individuals with SCI swim, to her volunteer work in Africa and, now, mother of two adopted boys from Haiti. She also offers advice on how to juggle work, home and volunteer responsibilities (hint: she uses sticky notes).

RHI: Tell us a little about your work at the Stan Cassidy Centre for Rehabilitation?

Colleen O`Connell

Colleen O'Connell: I’m a physiatrist, specializing in neurorehabilitation.  I work with interdisciplinary teams for both inpatients and outpatients with spinal cord and brain injury and diseases.  I am primarily a clinician, with both research and academic responsibilities.  As Research Chief, I am involved in a number of clinical trials predominantly in the area of pain, mobility and spasticity evaluation and treatment.

RHI: What was your first experience with someone with SCI?




CO: In high school, I was a lifeguard and swimming instructor, and taught individuals with SCI and other mobility impairments how to swim as part of a Red Cross program called Adapted Aquatics.  Recognizing the positive impact of physical activity on a persons well-being, and the unique challenges faced by persons with SCI in participating in such activities, was a motivating factor to pursue a career working with persons with paralysis.

RHI: We’re told you first began working in international development through a Red Cross program in 1986, and that experience in Kenya introduced you to both medicine and international aid/development. What was that like?

CO: I credit this experience as the ignition of my medical career, and pursuit of improving lives for persons with disability, irrelevant of the place they call home, and as well with shaping the person I have become.  I lived with a non-traditional Kenyan family in Kikuyu, and traveled by public bus each day where I worked in a medical clinic in Mathare Valley, one of Nairobi’s largest slum areas.  At the clinic, it was evident very quickly, that the best we could and should do was educate – handouts and bandaids only help briefly, but education can bring change.   I first learned how it felt to be an outsider, as the only foreigner on the bus and living in the community.  I saw how people could live, often happily, with very little.  I began to understand how big the world actually is, yet how connected we were, and how we can as individuals actually make a difference for people.  The family I lived with was actually a single woman who had adopted three girls, one with severe disabilities, and I recognized how important this mother’s actions were in the lives of her girls, and that this did not require assistance from the developed world.

RHI: Tell us about your aid work in Haiti? What prompted you to go there in 2003?

CO: Haiti, as most know, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and where a person’s physical capacity can literally dictate survival.  An organization founded by an American rehabilitation physician was searching for more rehab doctors to volunteer their time in Haiti at their rehabilitation clinic, which at the time was one of the sole providers of prosthetics in the country.  As the primary objective was eventually to have rehabilitation services delivered by local health workers themselves, I felt this was a good fit for my philosophy or principle of international aid through education and training.

Our programs in Haiti have continued to grow, and the Healing Hands clinic and outreach programs serve thousands of patients annually, and are nearly entirely staffed by Haitian health workers, many of whom we have trained.  The focus of our work is in establishing training programs and facilities for rehabilitation professionals such as therapists and prosthetic/orthotic technicians and rehabilitation nurses, as well as providing ongoing medical education in areas of SCI, stroke and pediatrics rehab.  Since the earthquake, we have taken on a leadership role in SCI care in the country -and many more persons with SCI are now surviving their injuries and reintegrating to the communities - with the improved capacity to deliver such specialized care in the country.

IMG_5456_smRHI: What was it like the first time you visited? Were you prepared for what you witnessed?

CO: I was incredulous that it was so much like Africa, yet was only hours away from my home in Canada.  Port au Prince was densely populated, roads were poor, electricity was not reliable or available 24 hours a day.  The atmosphere could only be described as both vibrant and chaotic.  Resources were scarce and, at that time, you could spend a day searching for a screwdriver in markets.  Space in the clinic was minimal and crowded, patients were treated outside or anywhere you could find a spot.  The needs were vast, and the numbers of children, disabled and not, living in orphanages was humbling.  I was as prepared as I think anyone can be, and the experience overall was very positive.

Colleen with her husband Jeff Campbell and two children, Samuel and Venel.

RHI: Tell us about the people of Haiti.

CO: Resilient and resourceful.  You have to be to live there.  A sense of humor as well goes a long way, and the art and music are colourful and energetic.  Haitians are known for having many proverbs to explain life’s experiences– one I particularly like is “many hands make the load lighter”.

RHI: Is there anything about your personal/family life you’d like to share with us?

CO: Our international work is a family affair, and my husband, Jeff Campbell, organizes many of the logistics, communications and volunteer orientation.  We had decided after our experiences in Mozambique with many of the homeless children we met, that we would include children who needed a home as part of our family.  Members of one of our medical teams working in a hospital in Haiti expressed concern about one particular boy who was living in the hospital with no family, and we started the process of adoption, which then became two with another boy we met at an orphanage with our team.  Both boys spent a lot of time with our teams and staff in Haiti, and they now have a very large extended family!  Samuel and Venel have been in Canada since 2006, are great kids – and hockey players - and have truly made our family complete.

RHI: How do you find the time to balance your practice, volunteer work and a household with two boys?

CO: Lots of sticky notes, a good calendar, and lots of BBM between myself and my husband, and our partners in Haiti.  Sometimes I am emailing my husband from across our living room….The boys are involved in many of our activities and have also travelled back to Haiti.  We try to not miss the kids’ sports or school events, but they also know that we can’t always be there.  Keeping them informed and talking about world events and what we do at work and in volunteer roles is critical.

RHI: What impact has the “Rick Hansen effect” had on SCI research and care in Canada?

CO: The Rick Hansen Institute has brought focus to priority areas of research, determined through collaborative processes to ensure meaningful work is being done, with the greatest potential for results that will impact both people living with SCI, and in finding cures.  This is an exceedingly challenging task, but has given us in the community direction as well as focus, which is greatly needed.

RHI: Why did you join the RHI Board?

CO: I was honoured to be asked, and felt it was an opportunity to be involved in “something powerful”.  I hope my experiences with SCI internationally across many cultures and realities, coupled with my clinical expertise, would allow me to make meaningful, practical contributions to further improve the lives of persons living with SCI.

RHI: How would you describe RHI’s role in its relatively short history?

CO: RHI has provided the organizational infrastructure and progressive vision to successfully bring together the clinical, research and consumer communities in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation across Canada, and now globally.  There is strength in numbers when we work together.

RHI: What’s the future of SCI research and care?

CO: Expedient, efficient and effective translation of research into practice, combined with greater communications between consumers, clinicians and researchers.