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Passion meets pride

Investment in students leads to a better life for MS patients

By Michelle Osmond

Augustine J. Devasahayam (AJ) is working hard to make life better for people with multiple sclerosis (MS) in Newfoundland and Labrador and, ultimately, around the world.

His research path led him here to Atlantic Canada – a place with the highest rate of MS in the world. Specifically, his path led him to Dr. Michelle Ploughman, Memorial University’s Canada Research Chair in Neuroplasticity, Neurorehabilitation and Brain Recovery.

Mr. Devasahayam, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial, is one of the first recipients of three O’Dea Research Fellowships, newly established by John and Janet O’Dea.

The couple feel strongly about supporting individuals with disorders like MS so they can “get more of their lives back.”

Their motivation fits well with Mr. Devasahayam’s passion.

“People living with long-standing diseases such as MS need new treatments founded on novel ideas, conceptions and discoveries,” he said. “At Dr. Ploughman’s Recovery and Performance Laboratory, I have opportunities to test new rehabilitation ideas.”

From left, researcher Augustine Devasahayam and donors Janet and John O’Dea at the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

From India to here

Mr. Devasahayam’s research interests began to develop while working as a physiotherapist. He started to look closely at fitness among sedentary individuals in India, where he took a keen interest in developing new strategies to restore movement in those with walking difficulties.

While working as a research assistant in New Zealand, he saw the problems people with MS face.

“Both clinicians and people with MS know that participating in regular exercise will improve physical endurance and walking ability,” he said. “However, people with MS report fatigue and heat sensitivity as some of the barriers that prevent them from engaging in regular exercise.”

Having come to Canada for more research opportunities, the O’Dea Research Fellowship encourages Mr. Devasahayam to “think bigger.” He wants to become a successful rehabilitation researcher, undertaking projects that advance fundamental basic science research into the clinical setting.

Already, he’s been co-principal investigator on an MS study that has given several patients the ability to exercise when they thought they never would again.

‘You gave my life back to me’

Work like Mr. Devasahayam’s is what motivated the O’Deas to establish the fellowship at Memorial.

“I was immensely impressed,” said Mr. O’Dea, about his time as co-chair of the Faculty of Medicine’s Building a Healthy Tomorrow capital campaign. “I became motivated by the work that was being done here. I discovered stories that needed to be told as to why this is such a worthwhile medical school to support.”

For Mrs. O’Dea, motivation came from her career as a physiotherapist and clinical co-ordinator for physiotherapy candidates pursuing studies at Dalhousie’s School of Physiotherapy.

“We both felt strongly about health care, about research and especially about providing opportunities for students.” — The O’Deas

She recalls one moment in particular: one of her colleagues’ patients had come close to losing his life. When he came through his ordeal and was discharged from rehabilitation, his parting words were, “Doctors saved my life, and you gave my life back to me.”

“I can only begin to imagine the extent and breadth of the research and learning that enabled physicians to save this young man’s life,” said Mrs. O’Dea.

“But, hugely important to him was his rehab team. It’s why research in physical medicine and rehabilitation is meaningful to me, for us, so that individuals with brain disorders like MS, head injuries and stroke might one day get back more of their lives.”

After a discussion over coffee with Dr. Ploughman, both she and Mr. O’Dea say they were “blown away” with the research happening in the lab.

“We both felt strongly about health care, about research and especially about providing opportunities for students.”

Valued at $10,000 each, Megan Kirkland, a MD-PhD student, and Arthur Chaves, also a PhD candidate, are the two other recipients of the first O’Dea Research Fellowships.

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