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Interview with Orthopaedics professor and researcher, Bonita Sawatzky, Part 2

Bonnie Sawatzky

Researcher and teacher Bonita (Bonnie) Sawatzky is passionate about all things wheeled, and making research practical. An Associate Professor in Orthopaedics at the University of British Columbia, in the Spine Division; and a Principal Investigator at ICORD (International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries), she focuses on the physiological and biomechanical effects of wheelchair propulsion to decrease pain, fatigue and long-term overuse injuries, in adults and children. She also help to bring together therapists, engineers, student and physicians, from around the world, to present ideas, innovations and research to improve mobility at the bi-annual International Seating Symposium.

In this second of a two part interview, she talks about her work on a ‘smart’ chair, unexpected research findings, and the importance of teaching medical students new ways of thinking.


How could your work apply to other health conditions? We’re interested in helping the aging population.  Whether you have a spinal cord injury or not, people in age care homes need to be taught proper wheelchair use.

My 103-year old auntie, who’s in a home, broke her hip three years ago and was almost bed-ridden.  Last year, she got her own chair which helped her to sit up straight and move 


independently. You should see her now: she’s out of her bed and in the community room. Going down the hallway, she goes so fast that they’re always telling her to slow down.  She used to constantly fall down, now she rips!

Lots of nursing homes don’t allow power chairs due to concern for injury. Our goal is to keep people independent longer…in their homes, safe.What kind of innovations do you see coming in your field? I'm on a team led by Bill Miller (Principal Investigator at ICORD) called the CanWheel Project (with a team grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) to build a ‘smart’ power chair prototype to help older adults to navigate safely.  For instance, those who suffer hemineglect (the inability to perceive anything on one side of the body, as a result of stroke or brain injury) may crash and incur an injury to themselves or others, when using a power chair.  So we’re creating new technology to help compensate those issues with navigation prompts and built-in sensors that can detect walls and objects.  We’re even looking at GPS to help people with Alzheimer’s sense how far they are from home, guide them back home, or to notify family members.

You had an unexpected opportunity to look at spasticity in a new way. Yes, when we were doing research on the Segway (see Part 1 of Bonnie’s story), one of the reported findings was that people experienced reduced spasticity.  They said they felt looser, and could open their hands.  So, I had a grad student look at this with eight subjects with moderate to severe spasticity, using a Segway, three times a week. We measured pain and fatigue over time and found that their pain, fatigue reduced over the months and spasticity was reduced during a few hours after using the Segway.  We’ll soon have a paper published on these findings in Spinal Cord.

Do you know why? My theory is that when you are on the Segway you are never still, you move fore and aft (backwards then forwards) to move along.  Perhaps the responses your neurosystems have to make for these movements are a distraction that turns the spasticity signals off.   I’m now waiting for new funding to test the theory.

Wouldn’t it be great if one’s mobility device was also therapeutic!  Now, you also teach. Yes, my teaching comes in different ways.  I supervise medical research grad and undergrad students, who call me the ‘Academic Aunt’. I also lecture on musculoskeletal blocks, and problem-based learnings for small groups on Doctor, Patient and Society (societal issues) which I find it very interesting.

Our goal is to keep people independent longer…in their homes, safe.

Tell me about the mentoring program you are developing. The Health Mentor Programbrings students from all health fields – medicine, occupational and physical therapies, nursing, dentistry and other disciplines - together, with health mentors (someone with a chronic illness or disability), to foster interdisciplinary understanding.  It’s modeled on a program begun at Jefferson University (Philadelphia) and now running at universities in Halifax and Hamilton, and here in Vancouver, at UBC.

Students deeply want to know more, to be better doctors, to be more patient centred.  Three or four of our mentors have a spinal cord injury, and this is such an interesting way for the students to understand context…what the issues mean to someone’s life:  the implications of a pressure sore (staying off your bottom for six weeks or more while it heals), what happens in families, how patients manage to be a parent, a spouse, or the child of an aging parent who needs care.  Most students don’t know that spinal cord injury brings so many secondary complications - pain, skin issues, bowel and bladder problems, spasticity - they just think that legs don’t work.

You have a full plate with teaching and mentoring, research, conferences. How do you decompress and find life balance? I love being outside.  My husband and I take my dog Leon for walks and I love to garden and read.

Was there anyone who particularly inspired you? The first was Dr. Judith Hall, a geneticist who totally inspired me.  She hired me as a summer research student assistant, where I discovered medical research, and fell in love with it.  I think it’s wonderful to get paid to learn something so fascinating!

After that, Dr. Steve Treadwell, the department head of paediatric orthopaedics, at BC Children’s Hospital, who really pushed me in my academic career and to get my PhD.  We still meet for coffee or lunch and chat.  He’s the greatest guy…my "academic dad".

Click here for Part 1 of Bonnie’s story