Fred Layton
Fred Layton says a visit with Team "I Will' inspired him to stay focused on his rehab goals, and to encourage others to, as well. (Photo: UHN)

"I will try my hardest, every single day."

"I will continue to believe in myself."

'I will walk again."

These are just a few of the mantras spinal cord injured patients of Toronto Rehab's Lyndhurst Centre created after a virtual visit with Team "I Will" – a group of past patients and community members dedicated to raising funds for spinal cord care and research, and inspiring others to challenge themselves, push their limits and know they're not alone.

The "I Will" mantra was developed by team founder Rob MacDonald, to propel his own rehab forward eight years ago.

For patients like Fred Layton, the event was the perfect antidote to UHN's no visitors or companions policy, which was implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more about the policy.

"It's tough being separated from my friends and family," says Fred, who came to Lyndhurst after a bacterial infection deteriorated his spinal column, leaving him unable to walk.

"On the one hand, I get to use time I'd otherwise be spending with visitors to maximize my rehab, but on the other hand, I miss having my wife and daughter here beside me."

Thanks to the virtual visit, where patients got to hear the recovery stories of the Team and create their own "I Will" mantras, Fred was encouraged to keep his focus on the finish line, and the future that awaits, post-discharge.

"I will run with my grandsons and dance with my wife – and enjoy family for the rest of my life," he says.

'We have to find a way to support them – we can be their virtual visitors.'

The idea of a virtual visit took shape after members of Team "I Will" heard about UHN's no visitor's policy – a difficult but essential measure put in place to protect patients and staff from the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

"When I was at Lyndhurst, and my future was uncertain, what got me through were the friends and family who would come and visit, pat me on the back and tell me things were going to be ok," says Rob.

"When I learned that patients don't have that right now, I thought, 'We have to find a way to support them – we can be their virtual visitors.'"

While the safety of patients is the number-one priority, staff recognize that being separated from loved ones can take an emotional toll.

"If a patient is feeling low, motivation can lag, making it harder to achieve their rehab goals," Sandra Mills, a Patient Educator who helped organize the event.

"We knew that Team 'I Will' would bring the messages of encouragement and motivation that have never seemed so timely."

With one Zoom call and pizza donated by Pizza Nova in place, about 50 past and present patients tuned in for some real talk.

'If you refuse to stop on the bad days, they will get you to the good days.'

"If I could give a couple words of advice, it's that positive momentum is a real thing," said Team member Andy MacPherson, whose "I Will" is to give back.

He talked about the injury he sustained from a ski accident six years ago, and his journey from having no feeling from the chest down, to walking without assistance.

"If you celebrate even the smallest wins, they'll add up over time."

His advice was echoed by teammate Jeremy Olsen, who received a heart transplant five years ago.

Jeremy's "I Will" is to be ready for his first full-distance Ironman Triathalon.

"Setbacks happen, sometimes frequently, but it's pushing through the challenging days that will give the biggest reward," he says.

"If you can do that, then the good days will feel more frequent and you'll be amazed how far you can go."

Other key messages included the importance of asking for help, visualization, and the reminder that recovery doesn't end upon discharge.

"I didn't regain any nerve or muscle activity while I was at Lyndhurst – that started to happen later – but I did learn the functional skills that I'd need to be more independent at home," said Andrea Nelson, whose "I Will" is to never stop trying.

Andrea has been training to qualify for Canada's Paralympic Team in parakayaking.

"What resonated with me most was that no matter how far you get in recovery, there's still a life to be had," says Fred.

"You can work, enjoy hobbies, and contribute to society – you're not defined by your level of mobility."

'I'm inspired to stay focused on my goals'

As the virtual visit came to a close, patients penned their own "I Will"s.

And as they were shared, one by one, a feeling of optimism filled the space.

"Having an opportunity to write my own "I Will" inspired me to stay focused on my goals," says Fred.

"But it also encouraged me to build other people up, and encourage their progress, as well."

According to Rob, it didn't go unnoticed that the idea for the event – one that Team "I Will" hopes to turn into a tradition – grew from such a difficult time.

"It's a reminder that you can take the opportunity that comes from something bad, and turn into something good. And that's powerful."

About Team 'I Will'

Team "I Will" is a community of people who have come together to break barriers. Whether it's a mental or physical feat, team members encourage and inspire each other to push limits hindrance and overcome obstacles. Through these experiences Team "I Will" members have built meaningful, lasting friendships.

Not only does Team "I Will" support the community through inspiration, it also raises money for the Toronto Rehab Foundation, and the future recovery of patients with spinal cord injuries. Learn more about Team "I Will."

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