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Defeating Dizziness - Sheelah's Story

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

Hey readers, It’s Amber back with a very exciting story! As I’m sure you all know, Sheelah Woodhouse is one of our amazing vestibular therapists. I am going to be telling you her story today. Sheelah’s journey before she got to Tele-Rehab 2.0 has been pretty incredible!

I really enjoyed talking to Sheelah. The whole TeleRehab 2.0 team is so thankful for all she has done, and for agreeing to do an interview with me! Talking and learning from her expertise has been amazing for me as a student hoping to join the physical therapist career world. In school, so much knowledge is learnt very quickly - especially around the main job opportunities in rehab therapy. I find it so interesting how Sheelah stumbled across her passion by accident, it makes me wonder if what I have planned for the future may completely change. Therefore, interviewing Sheelah was very beneficial for me as I am wanting to pursue a career in rehabilitation therapy. The inside look into the journey of a successful therapist provides an understanding of all of the opportunities available for me in the future. As you will find out later (and as I have hinted at), Sheelah changed her career plan after discovering a new field of rehabilitation. Knowing that my current career ideas are not set in stone and there is a high chance I will be drawn to a new path, that I might not currently know exists, is exciting.

Let’s start with a little bit about Sheelah. Sheelah grew up in Alberta, and now is living in British Columbia. She enjoys living in the mountains and being active outside. Her favourite pastimes include skiing, hiking, cycling, and yoga! These are the reasons why she moved to the mountains. Working remotely provides her with the ability to be close to the things she loves.

Sheelah at the Fisher Peak summit of the southern rockies, elevation of 2846m!

Sheelah’s career story starts at the University of Alberta, where she graduated in 1991 from the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine in physiotherapy.

After graduation, she was originally working in a private orthopedic clinic and was planning to work in orthopedics for the duration of her career. But life had other plans. One day, a patient came into the clinic with vertigo. Sheelah had no experience working with vestibular patients so she referred him to a specialist. But the patient came back and wanted Sheelah’s help. Sheelah explained to him that she didn’t know much about vertigo, but that the clinic had a textbook in the back. The patient encouraged Sheelah to try and read the textbook. Luckily, he had a vestibular condition which has very distinctive symptoms; BPPV (Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo), which you might remember from our patient interview with Edie! While trying the treatment specified in the textbook, the symptoms were completely eliminated for the patient!

This experience changed Sheelah’s career path. From then on in the clinic, all the other therapists sent their dizziness and balance issue patients to see her! She found the vestibular system fascinating and began to pursue more education around it. Due to the rarity of these courses and this speciality, she was required to travel into the USA for courses. While slowly moving to more vestibular patients, and less orthopedic patients, she eventually decided to switch career paths. Sheelah began doing vestibular consulting at a number of clinics in Calgary, eventually opening her own clinic. This clinic was one of, if not the, first of its kind in Canada! Vestibular therapists were very rare in Canada at the time, and it was a much needed speciality.

After a few years, Lifemark, a health group, approached her to join forces. Sheelah was ready for a change and wanted to make vestibular therapy available from coast to coast. In this career, she mentors lots of therapists across the country in order to give more Canadians access. Along with working with our project, Sheelah still works full time with Lifemark. Vestibular therapy is much more available now than it used to be!

Vestibular therapy is a small speciality to get into. From my experience in undergrad, we do not learn much about the vestibular system other than basic anatomy briefly. Until becoming part of this study, I had very limited knowledge of the inner ear. Learning more about the vestibular system has made me question why it is not covered more extensively considering it is very complex, and interesting! Sheelah has been teaching me so much, and I feel like the most knowledgeable kid in class now.

So, how did Sheelah get involved with Tele-Rehab 2.0? She was speaking at a physiotherapy conference in Kananaskis a few years ago. After her speech, she decided to watch other talks and sat in on Dr. Martin Ferguson-Pell’s talk, who is our main investigator in this study. The funny thing is, she didn’t mean to attend his talk and thought she was going to a different one! Not wanting to be rude and leave during his talk, she stayed and listened. But then, Sheelah actually found his talk about virtual rehabilitation fascinating! She thought it would lend very well to the area of vestibular rehabilitation. This led to her approaching him after the talk. She decided to join our project as rural communities needed access, and she wanted to be part of the team providing good quality vestibular treatment in rural areas. She also wanted to be able to control and equalize the treatment everyone was receiving, ensuring proper clinician training. Virtual care for vestibular conditions is normally quite difficult, as the infrared goggles are needed to view eye movements. The idea of having the equipment onsite in rural communities would remove the need for traveling, especially when dizzy. Because of this initial interaction, Sheelah has been a part of the project since the very beginning of the vestibular inclusion, when it was still just an idea.

I find it hilarious how Sheelah originally was not planning to attend Dr Ferguson-Pell’s talk at the conference and it was a wrong room scenario. Look at us now, it’s so awesome how things work out!

Screenshot from our interview with Sheelah!

Lifemark was starting to become interested in telehealth when Sheelah was talking with Dr Ferguson-Pell. This project was her first exposure with virtual health.

As I hope everyone is aware, we are in a pandemic. Although the dreadful covid-19 is less than ideal, I believe it helped our study out! With the current pandemic, more people were inclined and wanting virtual healthcare to avoid public areas. This push for virtual appointments generated lots more willing participants. What a great time to join an awesome study AND get the treatment you need! Sheelah also believes that Covid-19 put telehealth on everyone’s radar. The main difference between our study compared to other virtual assessments occurring, according to Sheelah, is the inclusion of equipment onsite. We also use additional technology that is not even used in in-person assessments. Kinetisense helps get precise details about the balance whereas normally in person they assess the balance by simple observation.

When asked about telemedicine continuing after the pandemic is over, Sheelah believes it is here to stay. The advantages of convenience and how cost effective it is, due to the lack of travel needed, have been emphasized to us from various participants!

When discussing the benefits of our project, Sheelah mentioned at home safety with us. With most patient care transitioned to online with Covid-19, testing balance without another person standing by for safety can be concerning. In our Tele-Rehab 2.0 project, the rural clinician is able to ensure safety, and we gather more data which can help with patient outcomes over time.

In terms of technology, Sheelah has found that the Double Robot we use is very close to feeling like you’re in the room with the patient. The ability to move around and get close ups, similar to what is seen in-person, and the ability to correct the rural clinician’s technique when doing maneuvers is very helpful.

Sheelah on our Double Robot during an assessment

In my humble opinion, as just an ordinary student with now a vast knowledge on the vestibular system thanks to Sheelah, the inclusion of technology in the rural clinics really sets us apart from normal virtual appointments. The inclusion of technology built for recognizing the most subtle of objective findings, ones that are hard to see with just our eyes, provides better treatment! I also have only seen the Double Robot via Zoom and would absolutely love to see it zooming around the halls of a rural clinic.

Sheelah specified that the main changes from in-person treatment to a virtual telehealth model is that she now needs to rely on the other clinician to get the exact maneuvers correct. It is beneficial to work with rural clinicians who are already physiotherapists or health care workers with background knowledge and patient handling skills, to make it easier to ensure proper technique is occurring. We think that, with proper training, we’ll be able to use more general health care workers as well. This is something we’re actively working on!

Having Sheelah as part of our project has allowed us to provide exceptional vestibular care to patients who otherwise would not have been helped. I want to thank Sheelah, not only for the work she does, but also for teaching me and sharing her story with me.

Stay tuned next week for our interview with Alec Chisholm, one of our rural clinicians!

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