KITE researcher shares remarkable story about overcoming spinal cord injury and advocating for change

Anita Kaiser is sharing her personal and professional journey for Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Awareness Month

In 1996, an unpredicted vehicular accident altered Anita Kaiser's life forever. 

The incident left her with a spinal cord injury (SCI) in the C6-C7 area, leading to challenges in mobility and sensation. The injury was a life-changing event that put Kaiser on a journey through rehabilitation at the Lyndhurst Rehabilitation Centre. 

"I spent a whole year in rehab at Lyndhurst. It was like a baby trying to start over again, learning basic activities," said Kaiser, a member of KITE’s SCI Mobility Lab and director of research for the Canadian Spinal Research Organization.  

"My injury was almost as though I severed my spinal cord. I have most of the function in my arms, but limited movement of my fingers and no movement in my trunk and legs.” 

Kaiser’s determination allowed her to regain some physical mobility, but also fueled a passion for SCI research. She is sharing her journey as part of Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month, which takes place each September.

Kaiser’s story underscores the significance of rehabilitation, peer support, and advocacy. Her personal experience highlights the unique and varied nature of SCI cases. 

Only two months before her injury, Kaiser had graduated from Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) in Applied Chemistry and Biology with plans to pursue either occupational – or physical therapy.

By 2001, however, she was working as a research assistant at the University Health Network (UHN) and has remained with the organization in various research roles ever since. By 2003, she decided to pursue graduate studies in order to take a more active role in research. 

“I have since returned to complete my doctorate in rehabilitation sciences so that I can take a lead role in conducting research that addresses the priorities and needs of the SCI community and positively impacts their quality of life,” said Kaiser, who has also faced many secondary complications, such as urinary tract infections and vulnerability to pneumonia. "It affects your autonomic nervous system, which controls heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and body temperature.”

Kaiser reflects on going from research participant to researcher and describes it as meaningful and impactful because it allows her to pursue research studies that benefit the SCI community. 

“I recognize the dual role and unique perspective I bring as a person with lived experience and the value of that in shaping the research question, and designing and conducting studies that reflect the priorities and needs of the SCI community, said Kaiser, currently a fourth-year PhD candidate at the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute (RSI) at UofT. 

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape of rehabilitation shifted. Patients faced shorter stays and limited opportunities for community-building, a stark contrast to Kaiser's intensive year-long rehabilitation experience.

"People are leaving without the supports they need to thrive in the community," she said.

In an effort to address the problem, she partnered with KITE Senior Scientist and Toronto Rehab Program Medical Director Dr. Mark Bayley, on a transformative project to bridge gaps in care. 

"I've known that there are gaps in that pathway as you travel from acute care to rehab to community," said Kaiser.