Phyllis Mensah remembers feeling like someone shook her awake. The wife and mother of three was in a deep sleep just after 1 a.m. last July when she suddenly sat bolt upright. “I noticed my phone was off and I had missed calls,” she says.

The calls were from her husband, Henry, who often worked late training shift-work clients at his Scarborough gym, Fitness Zion. When Phyllis dialed Henry’s cell, she didn’t like what she heard.

“His voice was slurred,” she says. “I asked if he needed help. He said ‘yeah.’”

Phyllis raced to the gym, calling a girlfriend along the way to meet her there. The two found Henry lying on the floor. “He reached up to me, smiled and winked,” Phyllis says, “That’s when I saw his face drooping.”

It was Henry’s 41st birthday. The Canadian bodybuilding champion had suffered a devastating hemorrhagic stroke.

At Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, doctors worked to get the bleeding in his brain under control. Henry was completely paralysed on his entire right side. He couldn’t swallow or speak, and he had a feeding tube. After 10 days, Henry was transferred to the York Region District Stroke Centre at Mackenzie Health, close to his family home.

After spending five weeks in the Intensive Care Unit, three of those in a medically-induced coma, by September Henry had recovered sufficiently to begin rehabilitation — and the tide quickly turned. Seemingly overnight, he began to talk and regain some mobility. Enough, in fact, that Henry put his personal trainer skills to work, leading a circuit class from his wheelchair for Mackenzie Health’s therapy team.

He laughs about that now. “It was so great!”

In November, Henry was discharged home, where he continued to recover rapidly with the help of his team at Fitness Zion. By the end of the first week, he started walking.“Every week there was something new. It shocked us,” says Phyllis.

Today, Henry walks with occasional help from a cane. He continues to work hard to build his upper-body strength and improve his speech, and he’s back to training clients and spending Sundays with his family.

Phyllis credits the Mackenzie Health stroke team with playing a critical role in Henry’s recovery. “He challenged them and they responded with the aggressive therapy he needed and deserved. The nurses knew Henry wasn’t the easiest of patients. But through it all, we formed strong bonds and relationships. This was his home for many months and I’m so grateful.”

— Christine Ward

Drawing is both an escape from the world and a way to connect to it,” says Lindsay Thompson. “It connects me to the world outside my mind and at the same time access my inner thoughts.”

For Lindsay Thompson, art has become her therapy — her happy place — as she continues to cope with and manage her mental illness. At the age of 17, Lindsay was diagnosed with schizophrenia and
obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) at Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital (at the time York Central).“I had a great amount of guilt with my diagnosis,” says Lindsay. “I felt that I was a disappointment to my family, that I did something wrong, and even more so, that I was a bad person and didn’t deserve help. There were days when I was even saddened that I woke up in the morning,” she recounts. Lindsay’s diagnosis significantly affected her parents, her sisters and brother who experienced their own level of pain watching their loved one go through an unimaginable and life-altering mental illness.

It was with the support and encouragement of her family that Lindsay sought treatment at Mackenzie Health when she needed it, knowing that in times of crisis she would be helped by compassionate,
caring and devoted caregivers who understood what she was experiencing — hearing voices, pacing the hallway, having thoughts of self- harm — and who truly wanted to see her heal.

From the nurses to the occupational and recreational therapists, each of their interactions with Lindsay made a tangible difference in her recovery. “No matter how many times I come to Mackenzie Health, the staff in the mental health unit are so friendly, warm and comforting in times of distress — just what I need to guide me through a crisis,” says Lindsay. “They always remember my name, which I find fascinating given the number of patients they see on a daily basis. It makes me feel welcomed in a safe space,” she says.

Lindsay also emphasizes how important it is to take things one step at a time. “While getting up in the morning can seem like a daunting task some days, and one that doesn’t really seem necessary at the time, do it, get up and face the day. Believe in forward motion, taking one step at a time. It’s worth it.”

Lindsay is 37 years old now, and while she experiences good days and challenging ones, she’s committed to living a fulfilling and rewarding life. With her family by her side, cheering her on every step of the way, she knows that her mental illness doesn’t define her future.

Lindsay credits Mackenzie Health for playing a vital role in her journey towards wellness. She wanted to share her story so that our community is aware, if they aren’t already, how fortunate we are to have exemplary mental health care at Mackenzie Health.

One of her drawings currently resides in the mental health unit at Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital, left to the community of caregivers as a constant visual reminder of how lives can be transformed with patience, kindness and sheer devotion to care.

9/11 changed everything for nine-year-old Tricia.

At school, the little girl imagined planes flying into the building, black smoke billowing and the walls collapsing around her and her big sister, who was also attending school in a nearby classroom.

She felt panic overwhelm her as she worried about her parents being in an accident.

The boisterous, exuberant child became quiet and withdrawn, shadowing her sister at school and her mother at home.

“I had this fear that only my mom could take away,” Tricia says. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

“I would be in class crying, everything had changed, it was a different me,” she says, still struggling more than a decade later to explain the feelings that once overwhelmed her. “I could feel it wasn’t me, it scared me.”

Her mother Clair trusted her instincts, knowing something was seriously wrong.

“Right away, I knew it was a disorder, a condition, that needed to be treated,” Clair says. “It became my mission to get her the right help.”

Tricia was seen by a child psychiatrist, who diagnosed her anxiety disorder and referred her to the Shaw Clinic, Child and Family Service, Mental Health Program at Mackenzie Health for individual, group and family counselling.

Her physician began working with Tricia to determine the required medication for her disorder, but things got worse before they got better, Clair recalls.

Getting her to school was a daily struggle, her marks plunged and she continued to have crying jags in class.

At home, she lashed out at her family, often becoming hysterical with fear, yelling until she could hardly breathe.

“All those years, I was quiet, and when I began to get treatment, it all came out — just to my family,” Tricia says.

Weekly sessions at the Shaw Clinic’s anxiety disorder group immediately helped Tricia to feel “normal” again.

“I thought I was the only one, then I saw all these different people in group — we all had different (anxieties) — and I felt I belonged somewhere for the first time.

“The biggest part for me was seeing I wasn’t alone, that’s when I went back to being me.”

While Tricia worked hard with her psychiatrist, therapist and social worker to develop the skills to cope with her disorder, and her independence grew; she continued to require constant contact with her mother.

“I’m the type of mother who would do anything for my child,” Clair says with conviction, thinking of the many occasions on which she left her work to be by Tricia’s side after receiving a frantic phone call.

“As a mother, you are desperate. I’ll never forget how desperate I was to get her help, it consumed me. It broke my heart.”

School remained a struggle for Tricia, with her mom acting as her strongest advocate, meeting with teachers and the principal to get her daughter the support and acceptance she needed.

The anxiety limited Tricia’s ability to focus and severely impacted her cognitive functions.

Tricia studied hard with the tutors her parents hired, but as soon as she was confronted with tests at school, the lessons she had successfully learned at home flew from her mind.

“She would literally hand in blank tests,” Clair says. “My daughter was a fighter, she did not want this to define her. She taught herself to learn things — she knew everything at home — but when she got to school, she forgot it.”

Clair says the family couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars it would cost for the tests the education system required to provide accommodation.

As the academic decline continued, other issues began to emerge, including depression, attention deficit disorder (ADD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and dramatic weight gain from the medication.

“What do we battle today?” Clair says, recalling the realm of Tricia’s once daily struggles. “Is it anxiety? Is it fear? Is it depression? Or her eating her emotions away?”

In Grade 8, with the encouragement of her Shaw Clinic team and family, Tricia set her mind on accompanying her class on a trip to Quebec City.

Clair had attempted to prepare the teacher to provide the support Tricia would need away from home, but he admitted to Clair later that he had brushed aside the concerns about Tricia until he “actually saw the real fear in her eyes”.

Tricia cried throughout the eight-hour bus trip there and balked at taking part in the activities with her classmates.

Clair had promised Tricia she would “jump on a plane” to bring her home if required, but with the support of parents who accompanied the class on the trip, she restrained herself when Tricia’s calls began coming in.

“The turning point was that trip to Quebec City,” she says. “I did it! I felt if I could do that, I could do anything.”

She decided she would prove wrong the teachers who had told her she “wouldn’t amount to anything”.

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Tricia says, her face lighting up. “I needed that trip to Quebec City to tell me I could do it.”

“I’ll be a different kind of teacher (than those who didn’t support me). I’ll be very understanding, sympathetic, supportive and caring.”

Her marks slowly began rising, from 50s and 60s to 80s and 90s, and then honour roll.

“The Shaw Clinic taught me how to deal with my anxiety, but also taught me life skills, how to take care of myself, how to do homework,” Tricia says. “In that room, I was normal, and that was everything — they saved my life, gave me a childhood.”

Tricia finally received the educational support she required when she was identified as requiring an Individualized Accommodation Plan (IAP) on starting high school. Clair says, however, as Tricia mastered the success strategies she learned at the clinic, that support wasn’t necessary.

“An assignment that might take most students two hours takes me three days. I’m OK with that, I’m in a routine and the end goal is teaching.”

Today, Tricia is steps away from achieving that goal and is successfully managing her anxiety disorder. She is in teachers college, with a perennial presence on the Dean’s List.

She lives away from home and is in a stable relationship with her longtime boyfriend.

She continues to meet challenges head on — whether it’s taking the subway or planning an upcoming trip to Greece.

The deep bond between mother and daughter is readily apparent when the two are together.

They are proud of the journey they have travelled together and are deeply gratefully for the exceptional care and support Tricia and her family received at the Shaw Clinic, so close to their home.

“Once you’re in, you’re family,” Clair says of the clinic.

They want to share their story with others, in the hope of creating more understanding and acceptance of people with mental health conditions.

“Tricia wants to be seen and heard. Awareness of mental health has come a long way,” Clair says, adding she would tell other parents to “trust your instinct, trust the system, be an advocate, fight for your child — keep an open mind and you’ll create an amazing adult.”

As far as society has progressed in its understanding of mental illness, Tricia chose not to be identified by her last name for this story out of concern it could impact her career.

“I have no shame, I will tell my story and be an advocate; however, I’m here, society is there,” Tricia says adamantly, using her hands on the table to indicate a gap. “We are so close, but we’re not there, it’s sad, still people don’t understand.

“I’m so open about it, and (most people are) so accepting. It’s such a shame, I could be turned down for a job because I have mental health issues.”

— Debora Kelly

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Growing up, the only thing Sabrina Cannella knew was dance.

At least five days of every week, Sabrina danced competitively. She was in and out of school and when friends asked if she wanted to hang out, her immediate and unequivocal response was always, ‘No, sorry, I have dance.’

You can imagine the devastation when the once healthy and active girl had to acknowledge she could no longer do what she loved most.

“Once I hit puberty, that’s when things started to go downhill a little bit. By Grade 8/9, I started to struggle and by Grade 10, I had to quit dance,” Sabrina says, with a shake of her head. “It was horrible. I was devastated. I left my dance bag out for the longest time because I just couldn’t bring myself to put it away.”

Now 23, Sabrina’s health care journey began at Mackenzie Health about eight years ago when she was diagnosed with several rare, complex auto-immune conditions.

The classic symptoms of appendicitis landed her at Mackenzie Health and then SickKids for surgery to remove the infected appendix.

A few months after that surgery, pain started under her right rib that eventually led to a diagnosis of a liver disease, which caused Sabrina chronic stomach issues from not being able to properly digest food.

She kept dancing.

When she fell down the stairs in 2014 and dislocated her shoulder, things got worse. A surgeon at Mackenzie Health suggested a possible cause for the recurring dislocation of her joints.

A consultation with geneticists at North York General Hospital confirmed what had previously been considered flexibility and “doublejointedness” was actually caused by a rare genetic disorder called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) – Type 3 in Sabrina’s case.

After surgery to stabilize her shoulder, an infection in her right arm resulted in a further diagnosis of a nerve condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome or CRPS, which, according to Sabrina, is the most painful disease currently known to science.

It was the CRPS diagnosis that finally ended her dancing.

“I kept up with dance and the hope was I would be cured. I remember I still had IV bandages on and I was sitting in class trying to take notes and that was upsetting me because it made me realize how far behind I was,”

Sabrina recalls. “Then, I had missed two tap classes and I was watching [my team], watching their feet as they were dancing, and I realized how much I had missed. I ended up running to the bathroom and throwing up because I was so upset. I remember just sitting at the front door [of the studio] and crying my eyes out because it was at that point I realized I had to let it go.”

Sabrina credits her family and friends as being her biggest source of strength and inspiration in “letting it go”.

“I’m surrounded by the most wonderful people. They lift me up. They constantly give me inspiration and reasons to keep going,” Sabrina says. “If we reach a hard stop, they’ve never looked at it as ‘that’s it, we’re done’. I would not be who I am or where I am without them.”

Sabrina also credits Mackenzie Health, particularly her mental health team, with giving her a sense of normalcy and security knowing she doesn’t have to go far from home to get the treatment she needs.

“When I’m in a pain flare or have an allergic reaction, Mackenzie Health is my go-to,” Sabrina says. “With my conditions, going out of my house scares me, so knowing that Mackenzie Health is nearby, has my history and will know what to do to help me is a huge relief. I don’t feel the isolation that I would having to go to a downtown hospital. My friends and family can visit and provide their support.”

Sabrina recognizes her illness and all the accompanying experiences have taken her on an unexpected path; one that has led her to a surprising discovery – she wants to be a nurse.

A pediatric oncology nurse, to be specific – something that would never have crossed her mind, if it weren’t for her illness.

Convinced her whole experience has been a blessing of sorts, Sabrina considers the opportunity to speak out and tell her story is very important in helping others not to feel alone.

“I don’t want anyone to Google the name of one of these conditions and feel like there’s not enough resources or that they aren’t ‘helpable’,” Sabrina says.

With her family firmly by her side, Sabrina and her health care team work to find the right mixture and balance of treatment to put her in a stable place, leaving Sabrina encouraged that she can live a normal life.

“My conditions can be progressive but it’s a matter of finding what works for me and building off what we know works. Over the past year, we’ve done something right. We have found something that gives me a level of relief that is working.”

Looking forward to getting back to driving and having a social life, Sabrina’s sights are set on starting her post-secondary education next year, and in four or five years, working in the field.

In the short term, the young woman who still struggles to give herself the grace to accept where she is – knowing that she will get to where she needs to be one day – has already started to give back through advocacy and raising funds and awareness for people suffering with the realities of chronic illness.

Sabrina runs a small non-profit fund (non-registered) that raises money to provide comfort items to kids and families, to pay for parking passes and food during treatment and to send chronically ill kids to camp or on shopping sprees.

Using her hashtag #stronglikesab, Sabrina features a specific child and their family on her blog and social media channels and supporters can donate through her GoFundMe page.

As a contributor to The Mighty, Sabrina shares her experiences in an online community that publishes “real stories by real people facing real challenges”. She was a speaker during CRPS Awareness Month last year and says, “Once I started speaking out, it was amazing the response I got.”

Which is exactly why she feels making her voice heard is so important.

Sabrina’s steps are no longer controlled by a 1-2-3 tempo. Instead, she has found a new mantra that helps keep her motivated and hopeful.

She recalls one of her friends telling her, “Every day may not be good, but there’s something good in every day. That’s become one of my favourite sayings and I’m always able to find that.”

Visit Mackenzie Health on YouTube to view Sabrina’s story.

– Erika Vilmanis

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“I wonder if I’ll walk again,” a thought that went through Hasnain (Hass) Mawji’s mind repeatedly in the wake of his devastating stroke in February 2016.

Evidently, for Hass, that fear wasn’t enough to stop him from overcoming overwhelming odds when the hemorrhagic stroke left him with a paralyzed leg and arm at the age of 44.

Not only did he have to battle paralysis, he also had to overcome the fear he would ever live normally again.

“That was really scary. I kept wondering if the feeling in my arm and leg would ever come back,” Hass says.

But Hass’ determination won out in the end. During his six weeks in the Mackenzie Health District Stroke Centre, he set big goals and let nothing stand in his way.

“I said to myself, I’m determined to walk, so I’m going to walk.”

And he did, beginning with a walker and then a cane.

Then, for three months, Hass continued rehabilitation with visits to St. John’s Rehab and Mackenzie Health’s Cardiac Rehabilitation. While he grew stronger daily, there were days that a fear of falling kept him home.

“I was so tired of being afraid. One day, I woke up and said to myself ‘Let’s do this’. I got on the bus and went to the mall,” Hass says. “I had to take the fear out of my recovery. I walked around the mall for hours, alone, and although I was truly afraid, I told myself if I fall, I’ll get up.”

It was that same drive that inspired Hass to challenge himself even further by registering for Richview Manor’s Strides for Stroke, the Foundation’s annual five-kilometre run/walk supporting the Mackenzie Health District Stroke Program.

“I wasn’t sure if I would cross that finish line, but I did, and with so many others supporting a cause that is very important to me,” Hass says. “I was so motivated by all the people involved, I found the courage to keep going even when I was tired.”

For Hass, walking has been a therapeutic and rewarding measure of success throughout his recovery. Each day since his venture out to the mall, Hass has challenged himself to walk new routes and longer distances.

Hass is so grateful to the entire team at Mackenzie Health for saving his life, he now volunteers on the Mackenzie Health Stroke Unit, helping fellow stroke survivors to overcome their fears and challenges as he did.

“This is how I give back for my second chance at life,” Hass says. “I tell the patients, ‘I was where you are. You will get better, you just have to keep believing that you will.’”

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When Mary Granicolo received the devastating diagnosis in August 2016 that she had breast cancer, she was nervous, anxious and afraid.

With no history of breast cancer in her family, Mary wasn’t sure what to expect, or how she and her family would get through this.

“It was by far the hardest time in everyone’s life,” her daughter, Bianca, recalls.

With her husband, Louie, and their three grown children, Robert, Christopher and Bianca, by her side, Mary began her treatment journey with surgery at Mackenzie Health.

Mary arrived feeling understandably nervous and emotional, but the staff and volunteers were quick to make her feel as relaxed and comfortable as possible. For Mary, laughter was the best medicine.

“The nurse that cared for me in pre-op was a comedian and truly tried to lighten the situation. The gentleman pushing my bed to the surgical suite was also very kind and gentle. He sang to me all the way to surgery,” Mary recalls. “Laughter, as we all know, is the key to lightening any situation. You don’t want to talk about how scared you are.”

Mary was scared though. After receiving the life-altering diagnosis, she opted to take a vacation with her family before beginning treatment.

“We had this trip to Sicily planned for a while. I felt like I needed this. I needed to take time with my family before I had to go through the hardest thing I have ever had to.”

While going through something so traumatic, Mary says, “friends and family are very important.” She also added her diagnosis “was a true challenge for everyone in the family.”

“I am the social butterfly and the organizer in the family. It’s a tough journey and the emotions are truly uncontrollable.”

Mary acknowledges husband Louie for being her rock through all of this.

“He truly put his life on hold for me,” she says. “He was my cook, my driver, my caregiver, my everything.”

Mary is grateful to her surgeon Dr. David Weizman, Medical Director, Department of Surgery, Head, Division of General Surgery, General and Minimally Invasive Surgeon, Mackenzie Health, and his team for their compassionate and expert care. Photos by Gary Collier.

Mary is grateful to her surgeon Dr. David Weizman, Medical Director, Department of Surgery, Head, Division of General Surgery, General and Minimally Invasive Surgeon, Mackenzie Health, and his team for their compassionate and expert care.
Photos by Gary Collier.

Bianca calls her mother the glue that keeps everything together.

“For someone going through so much, you would not even guess that she was battling cancer.”

Mary says it was Louie and their children who held her together.

“My parents and my siblings were also by my side during all of this. It is very challenging for parents to see their child going through all of this. It does not matter how old you are.”

Throughout her emotionally difficult experience, Mary says her care at Mackenzie Health was nothing short of “an amazing experience.”

She praises her surgeon, Dr. David Weizman, Dr. Rama Bhat, Dr. Kavitha Passaperuma, the nursing and support staff and volunteers who cared for her for being “truly professional, kind, thorough and compassionate.”

After surgery, Mary completed radiation at Mackenzie Health’s partner hospital, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

“My mother kept herself together and prevailed through months of discomfort from her radiation,” says Bianca. “With a smile on her face, she beat it and is stronger than ever.”

In a letter to her mother, Bianca writes:

Mom, thank you for showing me how to make the most out of life.
Thank you for teaching me to appreciate the small things.
Thank you for helping us all out and staying so positive.
Thank you for being so incredibly strong.
Thank you for being my rock.

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