From iron lungs to the Wii

(Edmonton) A large population of veterans in Western Canadian and an outbreak of polio in the1950s were the precursors to the provincial government asking the University of Alberta to establish an occupational therapy program.

Leonard Allbon, former occupational therapy professor at the program’s first chair, came to Edmonton from the United Kingdom to start the Department of Occupational Therapy in 1960.

“When I arrived, there were wards full of people, at the University of Alberta Hospital and the Royal Alexandra Hospital, with iron lungs; they were patients with polio who needed assistance in breathing who used these metal containers,” said Allbon, who will join alumni, staff and students in celebrating the department’s 50-year anniversary at Lister Centre May 14.

Eventually the iron lungs disappeared, but Allbon and his nine-member staff continued preparing students to learn and practice in communities in Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatchewan. Those first occupational-therapy students were taught how to use weaving and sewing to help rehabilitate patients.

Today, the program is still taking innovative leads as it prepares students to heal a diverse client base, which still includes victims of polio and war veterans.

“People who had polio 50 years ago, now have post-polio syndrome and have aged with the disability,” said Lili Liu, chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy, which exists within the U of A’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. “We’ve also come full circle now in that the needs of military veterans are gaining attention again, particularly from a mental and physical health perspective.”

In order to better serve the needs of those injured in military service, the U of A announced the first research chair in Canada dedicated to the rehabilitation of injured soldiers and veterans May 10.

The Canadian Military and Veterans’ Chair in Clinical Rehabilitation will, says Martin Ferguson-Pell, dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, create a national research network dedicated solely to military rehabilitation, while highlighting the real influence that university research chairs can have on national clinical practices.

In decades past, Liu says occupational therapy has served people suffering from stroke, spinal-cord injuries, mental health and chronic conditions with seniors. However, she says the discipline is evolving to include working on ways to remove stigmatization associated with disability.

“Many of us are trying now to communicate that a person is as only disabled as their environment makes them. If we’re going to be successful health-care professionals, we need to speak to the dignity of a person,” she said. “Why is it that some products, such as walking cane or wheelchair, are designed to give an institutional look? It just screams out the message, ‘I’m sick,’ or ‘I’m fat’ or ‘I’m blind.’ It stigmatizes.”

By also using newer technologies, such as the Nintendo Wii, Liu says the department is ahead of others. “The Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital was the first hospital in North America to use the Nintendo Wii for stroke patients. Now it’s quite common.”

Also popular now is the program itself, which Allbon says had only a single student at one point. Today, more than 100 students graduate from the program each year.

“It was obviously a successful program, so I had no doubt that it would continue. But it’s a bit amazing to me now that it got as big as it did,” Allbon said.