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Teaching families to beat the odds

Doreen Dawe with family, back row, from left, her son Andrew and her husband Roy. Front row: Ms. Dawe, son Peter, daughter-in-law Stephanie, and son Graham holding grandson Philip.

By Michelle Osmond

Doreen Dawe was getting ready for her morning run when something felt wrong. Within 20 minutes she had lost function in both her legs and her pelvis. She was completely paralyzed from the waist down. This health crisis was just one in a series that would change her life but not necessarily for worse.

It started earlier in 2002 when one of Ms. Dawe’s sons became critically ill and was not expected to survive. He did recover after intensive medical treatment. A few weeks later, Ms. Dawe suffered a spinal cord infarction (caused by a spontaneous blood clot) which resulted in the paralysis. Over the next few years, she went through intensive rehabilitation. Four years after this, Dawe was diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

“I never liked hearing any doctor or therapist say ‘You can’t do it.’ I would always turn that around in my mind and say ‘You wait and see’”, said Ms. Dawe, who is an associate professor with the School of Nursing. “After the infarction, I was given encouragement about getting some function back but no one could totally predict what my recovery would be. A physiotherapist told me I had beaten the odds.”

Ms. Dawe said her experience with the challenges of recovery made her to want to give back so others could benefit from her experiences. So, she and a colleague in the School of Nursing, Doreen Westera, applied for an Instructional Development Grant through Memorial to make a video about resilience and how health professionals can foster resilience in patients.

The official definition of resilience is “the ability to recover quickly from setbacks.” Ms. Dawe and Ms. Westera developed Resilience in Health Care Crisis to show students and health care workers how a family like Ms. Dawe’s could maintain healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning when faced with what would likely be the most difficult time of their lives.

“Resilience can be a family and community event. My colleagues and others at Memorial were and continue to be part of my resilience,” said Ms. Dawe. “They provide incredible support physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

“When health professionals focus on resilience they focus on strengths and possibilities, and what a profound effect these things have on positive health outcomes,” explained Ms. Westera. “This model of care rejects the concept of damaged, which emphasizes deficits, dysfunction, and deficiencies, instead embracing strengths, competencies and resources.”

According to Ms. Westera, resilience requires perseverance, determination, and the ability to envision possibilities and attack obstacles. Qualities, she says, everyone is born with.

“We felt it was so important for health care professionals to realize that everyone has the power within themselves to adjust to adversity and that this can be fostered,” said Ms.Westera. “They need the tools to show clients that health problems should be secondary to living life to the fullest.”

Ms. Westera has been producing videos that link nursing theory to practice since 1990 and they have been distributed around the world.

“Today’s students have grown up in an environment of television, movies and video games. They seem to learn much better with visual images and those learning experiences are even better when connected to real life experiences,” said Ms. Westera, who sees the 29-minute Resilience in Health Care Crisis video as a resource for departments such as nursing, social work, education, medicine, women’s studies, and psychology.