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The future of
rehabilitation research

St. John's Rehab Hospital
Donor support is helping to advance exciting work at Sunnybrook’s St. John’s Rehab

Research-inspired care is a hallmark of Sunnybrook’s St. John’s Rehab. Led by program chief Dr. Larry Robinson and research director Sander Hitzig, PhD, St. John’s Rehab prioritizes physical and mental health rehabilitation, so patients can transition from injury or illness back to their lives.

The generosity of Sunnybrook’s community ensures the team not only continues providing high-quality care, but also drives forward new discoveries. The high level of integration between researchers and clinicians means that recent discoveries are quickly brought to the bedside.

Here are a few recent highlights:

The John and Sally Eaton Chair in Rehabilitation Research

As the inaugural John and Sally Eaton Chair in Rehabilitation Research, Dr. Robinson has elevated the academic rehabilitation centre into a leader in patient-centred physical medicine and rehabilitation research, as well as in the co-design of innovative models that span the continuum: from acute care to rehab and the community.

Among many discoveries, Dr. Robinson demonstrated how patients who receive rehabilitation within the first eight days post-injury have shorter stays in acute care. He has also recruited a critical mass of clinical researchers – psychiatrists, physiatrists and rehabilitation scientists – who have become Canadian leaders in COVID-19, limb loss, nerve injury, and mental health rehabilitation research.

A Canadian leader in COVID-19 rehabilitation

As one of only three rehabilitation hospitals in the Toronto area supporting COVID-19 recovery, St. John’s Rehab is designing customized programs to help COVID-19 patients build up their cardiovascular reserves so they can get back to taking part in their daily activities.

Research scientist Marina Wasilewski, PhD, led one of the first studies in Canada to explore the entire COVID-19 care journey from the perspective of patients, caregivers and care providers. This has led to the development of COVID-19 rehabilitation recommendations to guide Canadian health-care organizations.

The next challenge is to better understand long COVID (when symptoms persist for 12 or more weeks). Dr. Wasilewski and scientist Dr. Robert Simpson are nearing completion of Phase 1 of a multi-year national study, toward a goal of informing care pathways to support specific psychosocial aspects of long COVID recovery.

Patient with walker with balloons attached, walks down hospital hall with hospital staff clapping.
St. John's Rehab is dedicated to specialized rehabilitation and is leading innovative research to better understand recovery from COVID-19.

The next generation in burn research

Through SPARK, the Sunnybrook Program to Access Research Knowledge for Black and Indigenous Medical Students, Lletta Lewis is examining rehab processes and outcomes involving patients with electrical burns. Lletta is a medical student at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

Susan Zahir, a Master’s student at the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute at the University of Toronto, is using qualitative methods to examine how electrical injuries impact the quality of life for patients and their caregivers.

Limb loss research and new advances in prosthetics

Scientist Dr. Amanda Mayo has led a number of pan-Canadian projects to address the physical, mental and social needs of people with limb loss. In a 2021 retrospective analysis of 10,000 patients who lost limbs to diabetes or vascular disease over the past decade, she learned that one-third of those surveyed were admitted to long-term care within a few years of their amputation. The continued analysis of this data could inform models of care and future support systems.

Recently, Dr. Mayo led a feasibility trial exploring 3D printed technologies to manufacture prosthetic components. She is also collaborating with surgeons and engineers to develop a new low-cost prosthetic thumb that can provide sensation to enable greater function.

A prosthetic socket is 3D printed in the lab at St. John's Rehab.
A prosthetic socket is 3D printed in the lab at St. John's Rehab

Mental health and well-being

Innovating new ways to better meet the mental health needs of patients and staff drives scientists Dr. Rosalie Steinberg and Dr. Robert Simpson. Dr. Steinberg is conducting trials using group therapy to improve coping and well-being for inpatients recovering from limb loss and major trauma, while Dr. Simpson is designing an online mindfulness-based intervention for people with multiple sclerosis across Ontario.

Dr. Steinberg is also leading wellness interventions for staff at St. John’s Rehab, with drop-in group sessions and education seminars on self-care strategies.