Toronto Rehab group therapy program connects inpatients ‘on the same journey’

Elizabeth Machado, 36, sits on a non-motorized bike without pedals at Toronto Rehab, Lyndhurst Centre. (Photo: UHN)

Prior to being admitted to Toronto Rehab’s Lyndhurst Centre, where individuals with spinal cord injuries (SCI) learn how to safely transition back to their communities, Elizabeth Machado lived a quiet life.

Born and raised in downtown Toronto, the 36-year-old worked as a caregiver, enjoyed dancing, hiking, and going on long walks around the city.

Elizabeth’s ability to do all those things changed when she received a double diagnosis of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and a rare condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which caused her immune system to attack her body and damage nerves.

While GBS is treatable, it initially left her completely unable to move, forcing her to relearn how to live independently again.

Although Elizabeth was able to turn to friends and family for support, she found it difficult to discuss her illness with those that hadn’t experienced an SCI.

“It was very hard to explain to people,” she says. “Nobody understands what you’re going through except for people that are on the same journey.”

Now, a new psychology service for inpatients of the Spinal Cord Rehab Program is offering her the outlet she was missing, where she can relate to others and face what the future holds.

A pilot group therapy program at Lyndhurst Centre, it offers patients a supportive environment to discuss their illness, injuries and coping strategies with other patients facing similar medical challenges. It also helps expand patients’ access to mental health services by offering more diverse options for those seeking support.

‘Some patients prefer to learn from their peers’

While patients at Lyndhurst Centre have always benefitted from the hospital’s one-on-one psychology services, the team recognized an opportunity to support patients looking for something more collaborative.

According to Dr. Martha McKay, a clinical psychologist and UHN Discipline Head for Psychology who helped spearhead the program, intense individual therapy isn’t a fit for all patients.

“Some patients prefer to learn from their peers and share coping strategies around sustaining an SCI and the stress that comes with it,” she says.

“Being in a room with others with lived experience is very powerful.”

Elizabeth, who hadn’t engaged in any type of therapy prior to receiving her diagnosis last year, says she joined group therapy “because it was harder for me to find support on my own and initiate conversations about my illness.

“This group gave me a place to connect with people I might not have necessarily gotten to speak to. Being in a group setting has helped me realize that feeling scared or vulnerable is normal.

“Hearing from somebody else who has gone through a similar experience makes me realize there are other ways of looking at things that I could try, too.”

‘The program gave everybody inspiration’

The emotional impact of an SCI has been well documented, as it can challenge a person’s ability to fulfill basic needs, such as finding accessible living accommodations.

Elizabeth says group therapy has helped her tune down her anxieties around these issues by providing a safe place to share feeling that other friends and family members might not understand due to lack of lived experience.

“The program gave everyone inspiration, and sometimes that’s hard to find within yourself,” she says. “We really became each other’s cheerleaders.

“Sometimes, you just need somebody to listen.”

Elizabeth says she learned many valuable lessons in the program that she can apply to her daily life, including breathing techniques, talking to herself like her own best friend and strategies to mentally prepare for more difficult days.

Dr. McKay hopes to expand the group therapy services across all units at Lyndhurst.

“It excites me because all of the individuals who had the opportunity to share their experiences found it to be very helpful, and expanding our mental health services allows us to provide better care to more patients,” she says.

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