What happens when intellect meets a passion for helping others

May 16th, 2014

By Michelle Osmond

What happens when intellect meets a passion for helping others

Chelsea Harris always knew she wanted to help people. Growing up in Glovertown, NL she volunteered with different organizations including a senior citizen’s complex where she hosted bingo days and sing-a-longs. Some days, helping just meant visiting with an elderly resident.

Chelsea also had a curiosity of anatomy as well as analyzing body movements and in 2012 she graduated with a bachelor of kinesiology (co-op) from the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation (HKR). It was a good fit and led her down a path that suited her perfectly.

“The decision to complete the co-operative degree is likely the key to my success,” says Chelsea. “I always knew that I would be involved in healthcare, I was just unsure exactly what type of care I wanted to provide. The beauty of a kinesiology co-op degree is that you get exposed to multiple healthcare fields including physiotherapy, occupational therapy, orthotics, ergonomics, rehabilitation and medicine.”

In her final year Chelsea received the Director’s Award for Exemplary Work Term for a co-operative education placement with Eastern Health under the supervision of Dr. Michelle Ploughman. During the placement Chelsea worked on a multiple sclerosis (MS) research project on the controversial Liberation Procedure. “During this study I was able to meet with people in their home as they shared the most intimate stories of how they were willing to risk their life for a cure. This was a pivotal point in my life as I began to realize how crucial inter-professional care was, and the underlying need for healthcare providers and researchers to work together to provide the best, and safest, evidence based care.

After that she participated in a national study investigating health, lifestyle and aging with MS, also with Dr. Ploughman, which evolved into the largest national study on aging with MS to date.

Gail Innes is a co-operative education coordinator with HKR. She says Chelsea stood out from the beginning. “I believed she was capable of achieving whatever she set out to do. She was always very focused and open to learning. She was eager to learn as much as she could from each work term but also very committed to contributing as much as she could to each of her employers. She wasn’t afraid of hard work and set high standards for herself.”

It was during her placement with Eastern Health that her interest in medicine was sparked. “The exposure to health care and rehabilitation outside of the classroom setting was phenomenal, and gave me a strong sense of purpose to become a healthcare provider.”

Chelsea now works in the Faculty of Medicine’s Recovery and Performance Laboratory researching the effect of exercise on brain plasticity and recovery.  Specifically, she’s working on a study investigating aerobic exercise and its ability to enhance cognitive performance in order to develop an effective approach to cognitive rehabilitation after stroke. “These people have taught me to empathize and work hard to help improve their quality of life. I strive to complete research that is scientifically relevant but also important to the people,” Chelsea says.

Chelsea still volunteers but her focus is on people with disabilities. She organizes an exercise program called NeuroFit for people with neurological impairments. She helps people regain confidence and independence so they can return to their regular community life. She also helps people with brain injuries at the Newfoundland and Labrador Brain Injury Association overcome disability and accessibility issues. “Watching people gain such major improvements reminds me of the importance of my work. I am very passionate about such programs.”

Chelsea credits her time at Memorial for increasing her passion for research and helping others.

She’s been accepted to the Memorial Universities Degree of Doctor of Medicine program, something she’s pretty thrilled about. She’s looking forward to furthering her education while maintaining her roots in kinesiology and her interest in rehabilitation. “To achieve these accomplishments it has required passion, hard work, and commitment, however I couldn’t have done it on my own without the support of professors in the school of Human Kinetics and Recreation as well as my co-operative education mentors.”

In five to ten years, Chelsea sees herself as doing the same things she does now, advancing science through clinical research and helping improve quality of life for people with disabilities, but with a medical degree under her belt, she’s hoping to take that work to the next level.