‘It doesn’t heal as quickly as the bones’: trauma survivors group offers peer support


TORONTO — Wednesday marks one month since a gunman went on a shooting rampage on a bustling street in Toronto’s Greektown, leaving two dead and 13 injured. Yet for these survivors, the trauma related to that night of violence may go far beyond their physical injuries.

But who is there to help? Who else but another trauma survivor could understand not only the effects on the body, but also the psychological and social issues that keep victims trapped on what may seem like a never-ending road to recovery?

Margaret Harvey does. And she has made it her mission to help others who have experienced a life-altering trauma to navigate that path and to not feel so alone.

In November 2012, Harvey was about to cross an intersection on her bike in downtown Toronto when a garbage truck came around the corner, cutting her off and sending her flying to the ground. The truck’s back wheels then drove over her, crushing her pelvis and causing massive internal bleeding.

Despite doctors giving her only a 30 per cent chance of surviving, Harvey pulled through. And then came four months away from her husband and two young children as she slowly recovered, first in hospital, followed by a long stay in a rehab facility.

Dealing with her physical injuries was a huge challenge, but there was so much more: the emotional and psychological fallout related to the trauma, dealing with legal and insurance issues, the impact on her family, and not knowing what the future might hold.

“One of the biggest issues I had was that no one could give me a prognosis, no one could tell me how long it was going to take to get back to normal or if I was ever going to get back to normal,” said Harvey, 44. “You’re working towards a goal, but you don’t know what you’re working towards.”

While surgical treatment and rehab eventually got her back on her feet, she was desperate for help to deal with ongoing physical problems — among them pain and unrelenting fatigue — as well as lingering psychosocial issues.

“I felt maybe it was my fault that I wasn’t getting better, and I was trying to search out other people who’d been through what I’d been through and I couldn’t find any,” said Harvey.

“I didn’t understand that trauma isn’t just an acute thing, it’s a chronic condition … It doesn’t heal as quickly as the bones.”

Determined to find other trauma victims, Harvey began researching online and discovered a U.S. group called the Trauma Survivors Network, which offered a template for setting up a peer support network.

She approached St. Michael’s Hospital, where she had been initially treated, about creating a similar program for anyone who had suffered trauma, whether from a motor vehicle crash, a shooting, stabbing or a work-related accident.

The result is My BeST (Beyond Surviving to Thriving): Trauma Survivors’ Network, a peer-support, information and resource program begun in April 2017.

“Patients who’ve sustained traumatic injury have a lot of things they have to navigate,” including multiple appointments with a range of rehab therapists, said Amanda McFarlan, manager of the trauma program registry at St. Mike’s Hospital, who helped Harvey set up My BeST.

“The other thing that they’re challenged by is that family and friends and loved ones want them to be better,” she said. “And if there isn’t a visible external symbol of their injuries — so if their cast is off — people kind of think unwittingly that they should be better now.

“But patients are really struggling. They may have had concussive symptoms, they may have emotional challenges, they may be very frustrated that they’re exhausted, they can’t sleep well.

“So they don’t feel better and they want to talk to other people who feel the same way.”

For Katharine Peters, 62, My BeST was a godsend.

Three years ago, she and a friend were struck by a pickup truck as they crossed an intersection. While her friend wasn’t badly hurt, Peters needed surgery to repair multiple breaks in her right leg, followed two weeks later by a total knee-joint replacement.

“It was in the rehab hospital that I began to notice all the gaps in the health-care system,” she said. While she had a great physiotherapy team, “there was nobody to talk to about what I was experiencing.”

Besides having to deal with a lawyer and the insurance company, Peters had to arrange transportation to attend multiple post-discharge appointments with a variety of therapists. After 12 weeks in hospital and rehab, she was still unable to put weight on her right foot, which was extremely painful and swollen, and she had to hobble around on crutches or use a wheelchair.

“Throughout my whole event, all of it, everything that was happening, I just kept saying there has to be a gift in this that I can use.”

Then she heard about the My BeST program. She met with Harvey and attended one of the monthly support meetings, which is open to both trauma survivors, family and friends, as well as bystanders who have witnessed a traumatic event such as the Danforth shooting.

It was then that Peters knew what she wanted to contribute: one-on-one visits to trauma victims in the hospital, to give them what she had needed but didn’t receive, “to say ‘You’re going to be OK. I’ve been through it. It sucks right now, but you’re going to be OK.’

“I thought if we can meet with people who are in the hospital and connect them to the group, then there will be a much smoother transition, rather than them having to stumble around like I did,” said Peters, one of three people trained so far to provide in-hospital visits.

“I found the gift, in that I can support people and I can give back. And for me to be able to do that is huge, because it’s everything I didn’t get.”

For privacy reasons, My BeST can’t reveal whether any of the Danforth shooting victims are taking part in the program, but following the incident, Harvey said her first  thought was “how are these people doing?”

“I know that these people, the ones who survived, are going to struggle,” said Harvey, who almost six years later still considers herself in recovery mode. “This is why we do the group. This is why we do the visits.”



My BeST Trauma Survivors’ Network: http://www.stmichaelshospital.com/programs/trauma-survivors-network/

— Follow @SherylUbelacker on Twitter.


Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press