Meet some of the inspiring faces that go above and beyond each and every day, in all corners of the hospital
The psychiatrist and neurologist
Dr. Rachel Mitchell (left) and Dr. Sara Mitchell
The power of two
When sisters Dr. Rachel Mitchell (left) and Dr. Sara Mitchell graduated from medical school, they never imagined that they would one day be working almost side by side in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook.
Rachel is the oldest and Sara the youngest of three girls. They both attended McGill University in Montreal for undergraduate studies but parted ways for medical school.
They later reconnected and both did their residencies simultaneously at U of T – Rachel in psychiatry and Sara in neurology. Eventually, they were both appointed assistant professors and interviewed for jobs at Sunnybrook only a week apart.
“We are both fascinated by the complexity of the human brain,” Sara says. “We approach the study of the brain from different vantage points, but collaboratively, which to us is emblematic of the spirit of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program.”
Both sisters are known for their people skills. While Sara thrives on working with seniors, Rachel enjoys working with adolescents.
“There is a joke in our family that we have you covered from the neck up. Old? Young? We got you!” Rachel says.
Intrigued by the mind-brain interface, Sara found her calling in neurology. She did a fellowship in neuropsychiatry and cognitive and behavioural neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School’s largest teaching hospital. She also completed a master’s in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health.
Inspired by the work of Sunnybrook dementia expert Dr. Sandra Black, Sara is currently focused on neurological diseases that affect older adults, such as dementia. She aims to improve the quality of care and pace of innovation for these patients.
Rachel, meanwhile, was fascinated by the effects of mental illness on personal identity. She pursued psychiatry in the clinician scientist program at U of T, attracted by the vast opportunity to conduct research. Later, she completed a subspecialty residency in child and adolescent psychiatry, working alongside Dr. Benjamin Goldstein at Sunnybrook’s Centre for Youth Bipolar Disorder.
Working as a psychiatrist at the centre, Rachel provides comprehensive assessments to adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18. She focuses her research on differences between males and females with this disorder, using cutting-edge techniques such as neuroimaging.
Rachel says it’s exciting to be able to do their work as sisters in the same institution, sharing many of the same mentors and resources.
“Of course, when we have a rare serendipitous moment of mutual availability, we love to grab a coffee together or exchange a quick hug in the hallway,” Dr. Sara Mitchell says.
“If that doesn’t work out, it helps that we live a mere five minutes apart,” Dr. Rachel Mitchell adds. The three sisters have two kids each who are just as close as they are.
– Sally Fur
The chief of critical care medicine
Dr. Brian Cuthbertson
Putting patients at the centre
“Critical care medicine has certainly evolved over 10 years in terms of advances in equipment and technology,” he says. “But it’s the improvements we have made to the way we work together as a team that I’m proudest of.”
Dr. Cuthbertson’s vision of teamwork has patients and their caregivers firmly at the centre.
“One of the things I love about how we work at Sunnybrook is that we have families attend rounds,” he says.
During rounds, caregivers join an interdisciplinary team – including doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, clinical pharmacists and other staff members – at the bedside of their loved one to share
information and discuss the patient’s care plan. Everyone has a chance to be heard and ask questions.
Teamwork is also a focus when it comes to medical training at Sunnybrook, Dr. Cuthbertson says.
“When I discuss leadership with Critical Care fellows, I share not only what I’ve learned about what is required to be a strong leader, but also the importance of recognizing when another team member is perhaps better suited to lead.”
Dr. Cuthbertson believes that challenging traditional hierarchies improves the function of teams, which can make a big difference in quality of care and good outcomes for patients.
“I like to start conversations about leadership by asking whose voice ultimately carries the most weight on the care team,” he says. “Of course, it’s a trick question, because if we are delivering person-centred care, the answer is always the patient and their family.”
– Laurie Legere
Care and compassion
Betty Cheung is always in motion. A physiotherapist with 15 years of experience, she is part of the St. John’s Rehab specialized rehabilitation team supporting patients living with limb loss.
On any given day, Betty can be found walking slowly with a patient, encouraging her to shift her weight evenly, or helping another patient strengthen his muscles to prepare for a prosthesis fitting.
Rehab is about helping patients regain mobility and independence, and Betty says she is inspired by the resilience of the people she works with and by what they achieve in the face of physical and mental challenges.
“I remember a patient donning their prosthesis for the first time and standing up and walking. I remember another patient saying, ‘I never thought I’d be able to walk out of the hospital, yet here I am,’” Betty says.
Each year, Betty joins her colleagues at the Achilles Run fundraiser for St. John’s Rehab, celebrating moments of perseverance and triumph. “Sometimes it takes our former patients a while, but as a therapist, it gives me such a boost seeing them walk past the finish line,” she says.
In May, Betty and physiatrist Dr. Amanda Mayo led a St. John’s Rehab team to host the 2019 Ontario Association for Amputee Care Conference in collaboration with the Sunnybrook Centre for Independent Living. More than 200 health professionals, amputees and their families attended the event, which drew practitioners from British Columbia, Alberta and Nova Scotia.
While large events like these are inspiring, Betty says she gets the most out of the daily experience of working with patients.
“To see patients being able to walk again, to sit up, to move, to go home – it’s very rewarding.”
– Natalie Chung-Sayers
The chief of the emergency department
Dr. Aikta Verma
Dr. Aikta Verma thinks a lot about assumptions, including her own.
“You walk into the room, look around and think: The woman is the nurse, the man is the doctor, and the oldest man in the room is the leader,” she says. “I’ve even made that assumption myself.”
As chief of Sunnybrook’s Emergency Department (ED), Dr. Verma is smashing those assumptions. She’s the first woman and youngest person to hold the position, and is responsible for all the physician activity in the ED in order to optimize patient care.
Growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Dr. Verma says it was challenging to be one of the few Indian families.
“I’ve certainly had barriers in my career because visible minorities and women have traditionally not held leadership roles,” she says. “But we are at a critical point — we have to represent the communities we serve. What barriers are keeping a diverse range of people from applying to and getting these roles? What can we do differently to support people?”
Dr. Verma says balancing her role as chief and her role as mom to her two-year-old son, Oscar, can be challenging, but she’s finding her footing.
“I feel comfortable saying to others, ‘Can we have this meeting a little bit later, after I drop my son off at his child care?’ I think that together, we can all be more understanding that while we love it here, people have lives outside the hospital.”
When Dr. Verma isn’t at the ED, she’s spending time with Oscar reading books and watching his favourite TV show, PAW Patrol. She has recently noticed something about these books and shows.
“In so many of the books we read, the construction vehicles and superheroes are boys. And there’s only one girl on the PAW Patrol team,” she says.
“These may seem like small, silly things, but these are the biases we grow up with. We all judge people by how they look. Let’s acknowledge those assumptions in ourselves and actively work to change them.”
– Alexis Dobranowski
The electrical and mechanical manager
A helping hand
Dave Simmons grew up on a dairy farm surrounded by open fields, forests and machinery. A fascination with how things worked led him to pursue an education in engineering, followed by 37 years keeping things running at a steel mill.
Last year, Dave “switched gears” and joined Sunnybrook as electrical and mechanical manager.
His first task was to get the Tower Clock working, which stands where the original Veteran‘s wing was built 71 years ago.
Dave and an electrician colleague had only three months to fix it, in time for the Remembrance Day ceremony.
“I asked myself how hard it could be to fix a clock,” Dave recalls. “The fact that it had not been running for years should have tipped me off.”
Each time they hit an obstacle, Sunnybrook staff “fell over themselves” to help them achieve their goal on time, Dave says. On Nov. 10, they finally got the clock ticking.
“I was surprised by the letters of thanks that poured in, until someone explained that fixing the clock was an acknowledgement of the deep relationship the veterans have with the hospital,” Dave says.
Experiences like these have changed how Dave sees his job and the impact it has on the people around him.
“Just like steel mills, hospitals depend upon equipment to support their work. But at Sunnybrook, instead of making a product run more efficiently, the impact on people is profound,” he says.
“It can mean paying tribute to our veterans, improving the landing for a helicopter pilot delivering a critically ill patient, or giving a premature baby a better environment to grow in. I’m still motivated by curiosity, but using it to help people is incredibly gratifying.”
– Laurie Legere
Photography by Kevin Van Paassen and Doug Nicholson