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KITE’s Geoff Fernie reflects on appointment to Order of Ontario

KITE Senior Scientist Dr. Geoff Fernie says he is both “honoured and proud” of his recent appointment to the Order of Ontario by Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell.

Fernie, the former research director of The KITE Research Institute at Toronto Rehab and the Creaghan Family Chair in Prevention and Healthcare Technologies, is one of only 22 people named to the Order for the 2019 calendar year. 

 “An inspired biomedical engineer and inventor, Dr. Geoff Fernie is recognized worldwide as a pioneer in rehabilitation engineering,” the province said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “With numerous patents to his name, he has revolutionized daily accessibility and made the world a better place for persons with disabilities.”

The Order of Ontario is the province’s highest honour with a total of 798 people having been selected since its inception in 1986. Appointments are made on the recommendation of an independent advisory council to Ontarians who display outstanding qualities of individual excellence and achievement.

Fernie is a rehab science pioneer who has helped launch many companies and commercialize countless products designed to assist seniors and those living with disability and injury. He is also a Member of the Order of Canada, having been formally invested by Governor General Julie Payette in 2018.

Geoff received the Order of Canada from the Governor General, Julie Payette, in 2018
PHOTO CREDIT: Order of Canada photo credit: Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall. © OSGG, 2018.

The KITE Director’s Office spoke with Fernie about this incredible milestone. 

What were you doing when you learned about your appointment to the Order of Ontario?

I was in a video conference with my hand hygiene research team. Because the phone displayed “LG Ontario” I muted the conference microphone and took the call and, yes, it was a very happy surprise!  

What does it mean for you to be recognized in this way by the province?

I am very honoured and proud to be recognized in this way by the province. Ontario has been very good to me since I arrived in 1973. I am very proud to be a member of UHN and of the University of Toronto. This honour is one way of me thanking my supporters by sharing the recognition. I particularly want to thank Peter and Nisha Creighan who generously funded my chair and made my work in prevention and rehabilitation science possible. I think of this award as a “call to action” for me to do even more, and I must work harder to thank the people of Ontario by solving more problems to keep Ontarians healthy and safe.

When did you decide to pursue a career in biomedical engineering and rehabilitation science?

Chailey Heritage was a school and hospital that housed, cared for and educated children with severe disabilities in the English countryside. I lived there for the summer of 1968. I was studying how to design artificial limbs for children whose mothers had taken thalidomide. Many of these kids had 4 missing limbs. They were 7 and 8 years old, brave and adorable. I realized my future would be to use engineering to give people with disabilities a better life.

You have been in this field for several decades. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in that time?

Some of the biggest changes I have seen in the past several decades are in the areas of laboratory instrumentation, level of sophistication in scientific inquiry, and breadth of integration of multidisciplinary approach. 

In 1973 when I came to Canada from England, scientists in the field of rehabilitation began their research with making measurements in gait laboratories to measure how people move.  Some crude measurements were made in the field of prosthetics as well.  In modern times, measurements of biomechanics and bioelectrics have become the standard practice in research.  

Analysis of biomechanical and bioelectrical data has led to a good understanding of mechanical function of the human body, and a more modest understanding of the nervous system.  Technology is showing success in the field of prosthetics for amputees and electrical stimulation to restore function to paralyzed limbs.  Next advancements will likely be in the area of scientific understanding of brain function to address strokes and cognitive impairment. 

TRI has played a part in the biggest change that I have seen overall. That change is the transformation produced by the partnership of medicine and engineering.

I was very fortunate to be among the early pioneers in the field of rehabilitation science.  The biggest change for me personally was coming to TRI and being fortunate to win some big grants that enabled us to build the institute of my dreams. I wanted TRI to be different. This institute was going to be brave and focus on developing workable solutions to serious problems that are commonly encountered by people during the course of their lives. I also fervently wanted an emphasis on preventing illness, injury and disability – it is much better than trying to fix the problem afterward.  I think we have achieved both goals.

You are recognized by many as being a strong mentor. Are there any individuals who inspired or mentored you in your career?

Yes, I have had the good fortune to be mentored by several brilliant people who became my heroes. 

I consider Prof. Robert Kennedy to have been the father of bioengineering. I did my PhD in his department in Glasgow. My topic was the mechanics of skin and the cause of bedsores.  Bobby was one of the first engineers to have worked alongside a surgeon.  He analyzed the mechanical properties of skin and helped Donald Gibson find ways of covering large skin defects resulted from burns, cancers and bedsores by making use of those mechanical properties so that the skin could be stretched in patterns that allowed it to cover the most area without the dying from being over-stretched.  This was creative and innovative. 

I had two Canadian heroes, James Foort and Colin McLaurin, who turned the fitting of artificial limbs from an artisan skill to a science for amputees returning from the Second World War. They were brave, exceptionally creative, eccentrically brilliant and many light years ahead in the field of rehabilitation.

James Foort worked out the best way for artificial legs to fit to the body so that the forces are carried by the muscles and bone structures, causing less pain and damage often caused by squeezing and rubbing on the skin. Every modern-day fitting for amputees is based upon the methods originally developed by Foort.  He was the first person to introduce CAD-CAM (Computer Aided Design – Computer Aided Manufacturing) into prosthetics ten years ahead of anyone else.  Despite people laughing at him, he courageously carried on.  Now CAD-CAM methods are routine. 

My second hero, Colin McLaurin was responsible for the huge advances in technology to support children with disabilities.  Among many advances, he developed the standing frame for children.  He also was the inventor of the method of fitting artificial legs to people who have the highest level of amputation (where the legs were completely removed at the hip).  This was revolutionary.  

Both James Foort and Colin McLaurin were people with exceptional intellect and creativity whose talents spanned the full range from science to practical hands-on construction, to fine art and to poetry.  They were irreverent and intrinsically motivated to use their talents and intellect to help people.  They were willing to take risks and stand steadfast in the face of ridicule – they put the needs of others above their own need for social comfort. 

Not all of my inspiration comes from medicine and engineering.  An example that comes to mind was Tommy Douglas who founded our system of socialized medicine in Canada.

Tommy Douglas was very brave, intellectually strong, and passionate about making life better for everyone.  He was an effective and fearless orator.  He was a progressive thinker with the belief that healthcare for every citizen was a right and not a privilege.  Tommy Douglas was the founding father of our national medicare system.  

Your appointment to the Order of Ontario puts greater attention on rehab science. Why do you think this is important?

It is important to put greater attention on rehabilitation science because in medicine, besides saving lives, it is equally important to ensure there is an emphasis on restoring the quality of life and making life worth living.  The latter aim is often done through rehabilitation in areas of prevention of further injury and illness, restoration of function and enabling of independence.   This award helps recognize the important role of rehabilitation and the contribution that engineering has made to understanding disability and to creating solutions that have made greater independence possible.

In addition to the Order of Ontario, you are also a member of the Order of Canada. What’s next for Dr. Geoff Fernie?

I will continue to work to improve the lives of older people and people with disabilities. I want to inspire the next generation of researchers to focus on reducing the risk of falls which are the plague of growing older. I want us to make it possible for more people to age in place in their own homes and keep away from hospitals and nursing homes by using technology and cleverly designed social networks so that family caregivers are not burdened.

I have had a particular research interest in infection control and the role of hand hygiene for the last 18 years. I have been appalled by the needless suffering and heavy loss of life in hospitals and long-term care (LTC) every year due to hospital-acquired infections, and I was always worried about a future with epidemics.  I am determined to bring the results of our two decades of research in developing a world-class hand hygiene system for hospitals, LTC, and other congregate living environments to help frontline caregivers reduce the spread of infection through increasing hand hygiene.  This is now my next mission.