Alumni at large: Changing headspace


Dynamic alumnae—and sister—duo raising awareness of the impacts of concussions on Canadians

By Swapna Mylabathula ’11 and Sandhya Mylabathula ’11

Concussions are increasingly being recognized as a major health issue in Canada. The impacts of concussion can be devastating: Symptoms and recovery times are wide-ranging and the injury is not yet fully understood, and sufferers sometimes may not be able to resume their normal activities for weeks, months or longer. Unfortunately, not enough is being done to address the problem. We figured someone needed to find a way to bridge that gap, so we thought, “Why don’t we try?”

It was a run-of-the-mill kind of day. We were working on an assignment at the kitchen table when one of our cellphones pinged. Little did we know how exciting our day was about to become.

Flash back a few years:

It had all started with a casual observ- ation while reading a report in the newspaper on yet another concussion sustained by an athlete who would have to sit out. It piqued our increasing interest in why these occurrences were becoming so frequent and what could be done about them. Soon after, in the last year of our undergraduate degrees (in Human Biology and Nutritional Sciences) we began working with our Member of Parliament, Dr. Kirsty Duncan. We had been volunteering in Dr. Duncan’s constituency office for a while, and we decided to combine our passion for hockey (favourite team: The Toronto Maple Leafs) with our belief in the power of policy.

With Dr. Duncan’s guidance, we began what would become a five-year (and counting) adventure in policy change. Our goal is to address the gap between what Canadians who suffer concussions and their families need and what little support is currently available in our country. We also aim to promote increased research to address the many unanswered questions about concussions. An estimated 15 Canadians are concussed each hour, and this is likely an underestimate. Unfortunately, to date, not enough is known about the mechanisms of concussions and the healing processes involved.

Our Bill, A Comprehensive Strategy to Address Concussions Across Canada, calls for a National Concussion Awareness Week, a Canada-wide strategy to address concussions, as well as a Centre for Excellence in Concussion Research.

In the midst of our learning curve on policy development, we were invited to picturesque Prince Edward Island to deliver a talk on our work in developing a Private Member’s Bill. Dr. Duncan helped us prepare—and practise!—our presentation, which we delivered to a full house just after the keynote address.

We were overwhelmed by the support we received from the conference attendees, who were brain injury survivors, families, care givers, and health care professionals. This drove home what we had been learning all along—that there is a real need for action to support Canadians who suffer from the sometimes debilitating effects of concussions.

We were happy to discover that the overwhelming support we experienced in PEI continued everywhere we went. We were invited to make many more presentations, and were accepted to present at the 2012 World Congress on Brain Injury in Edinburgh, Scotland. We also collected more than 6,000 signatures on petitions from Canadians who wanted to express their support for our Bill.

This all led to that call at the kitchen table.

It was Dr. Duncan, telling us that our Bill had had its first reading!

It is difficult to describe the excitement and satisfaction of that moment. We are truly grateful to Dr. Duncan for her help—without her none of this would have been possible. This incredible milestone meant that we were one step closer to our goal of being able to help bring about change in the current state of concussion resources in Canada.

Our Bill is in the course of becoming legislation, but the political process can often be a slow one. Since the beginning of development, we expanded the Bill to address improvements in awareness, prevention, diagnosis, and management for any Canadian of any age who suffers a concussion in a wide range of situations, from sports to workplace injuries to senior falls to vehicle accidents.

We are also thrilled to see that even simply having started this conversation is making a difference for many. Most recently, we spoke about it at the TEDxYouth@Toronto event in 2014.

The TEDx talk was a unique opportunity to reach an audience that we hadn’t yet specifically approached: youth. By this point, we had already gone from inexperienced novices on the speaking circuit to having delivered international and national presentations, but this was special in a different way. We were sharing the stage with some of Canada’s most inspirational leaders, and we had the opportunity to share our experience and our message with a theatre full of enthusiastic high school students and a world audience via live stream.

It was amazing to feel the enthusiasm of these students for learning about concussions, and our conversations afterward showed that they were taking something away from the discussion—and hopefully spreading awareness to their networks, too.

With so many questions still unanswered, we’re also continuing to conduct research in this ever-evolving field, because new discoveries could help inform policies like our proposed legislation, enabling more people to be helped in so many ways.

When we started on this journey, we could never have guessed where it would take us or the Bill. We can’t wait to take our next step toward making a positive impact for the countless Canadians affected by concussions every day!

Sandhya and Swapna Mylabathula ’11 completed double majors at Trinity College in Human Biology and Nutritional Sciences and are currently pursuing additional degrees at U of T. Inspired by sport medicine courses and their favourite sport, hockey, to learn more about concussions, they developed a Private Member’s Bill to create a Comprehensive Strategy to Address Concussions in Canada. They have been recognized as two of the 50 most influential Torontonians by Grid TO magazine and have received the Dr. Jane Gillett Research Award. Sandhya and Swapna continue to conduct research in the field, and to speak publicly about concussions, leadership and community engagement. They are excited to be in the process of moving their Bill forward with the new government, and will have more details once Parliament reconvenes.

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