Carolyn Hand

Taking on recovery with determination

A woman wearing a mask holds on to stability bars and looks ahead with determination

Forty-one-year old Carolyn Hand was in hospital recovering from surgery on her spine when she was given a list of rehabilitation hospitals to choose from – and she saw a familiar name.

 “It was like a beacon of light to see West Park on that list,” Hand says. She had visited her grandmother at West Park 20 years ago when she was a patient recovering from a broken neck after a car accident. 

“…And she left walking and could live independently again, so she got her life back.”

Without hesitation, Hand chose to come to West Park too.

From illness and uncertainty, to recovery

Hand was up north in June, 2021 when she awoke one morning to find she suddenly couldn’t move one side of her body.

“I had woken up paralyzed and things just continued to get worse,” she says.

For the next nine months, Hand was in the dark about what had happened to her, and doctors weren’t sure either. After conducting some tests they could see Hand had a mass on her spine. At the time, they thought it could be anything from spinal cord cancer to a cluster of Multiple Sclerosis lesions. 

She was eventually told at St. Michael’s Hospital that she had a very rare condition called idiopathic spinal cord herniation (ISCH), which results in neurological impairment. 

Prior to her illness, she described herself as a devoted workaholic with the Toronto District School Board and an active, adventurous mother of two eight-year-old twin boys, whom she would take on hunting and fishing trips.

By the time Hand went for surgery in March, 2022 she was completely immobile. She experienced hair loss, multiple falls, and chronic fatigue that meant she had to take naps every 30 minutes. 

“My body was basically shutting down on me in every sense,” she says.
Hand felt optimistic she would be able to return home to her boys following surgery, but after four days in the hospital she was informed she would need to be transferred to a rehab hospital for the next step in her recovery.

When she showed up at West Park, the first thing she noticed was that she had a “lovely private room that overlooked the forest.”

“For someone like me, just being able to look out and be surrounded by nature was amazing,” she says.

Over the course of her six-week stay at West Park, Hand relied on nature as part of her recovery. She and another woman on her floor would sit by the window and identify all the birds together, and she could watch a family of deer that would prance and play just outside her window.

She balanced this well-deserved relaxation after hours of pushing herself in the gym, gaining a reputation at the hospital for her positive energy and determination.

When she first arrived at West Park, she had to rely on a wheelchair to get anywhere, and she wasn’t able to do a lot without assistance. 

“One of my biggest personal achievements was being able to walk again. I’ve come a long way,” she says. By the time she left West Park in May, Hand could go for short walks with a rollator. 

Returning five days a week as an outpatient, she graduated to using a double cane, to one cane, and can now walk her children from the car to the front door of their school without a mobility aid.

An ongoing journey of getting her life back

Like most patients, Hand’s success hasn’t been linear; it has come with struggles and setbacks. 

“Something like this is a long process, but West Park saved my life. It’s like a home away from home with a lot of staff members who really care – and it shows.”

Now in rehab three times a week, she continues to improve and hopes to volunteer at the Centre.

“Why wouldn’t I want to come work alongside people who are so great and who made me feel so great during the worst time in my life?” she asks.

“The least I can do is give back to such a great place. I hope you can tell I love it here.”