Emily Newton, (L), and Tess Devji, occupational therapists at Toronto Rehab's Lyndhurst Centre, worked one-on-one with Tony Vettraino by implementing cooking-inspired activity into his therapy plan. (Photo: UHN)

Making meatballs is a family tradition Tony Vettraino has cherished throughout his life.

After a workplace fall resulted in a spinal cord injury, Tony had limited use of his hands and legs, which meant cooking for friends and family was no longer possible.

But returning to the kitchen – and learning how to make meatballs again – was a goal Tony and the occupational therapy (OT) team set for him when he arrived at Toronto Rehab's Lyndhurst Centre.

"When I'm alone in the kitchen cooking, that's when I'm the happiest," says Tony.

At Lyndhurst, multi-disciplinary teams support patients with spinal cord injuries in regaining independence in their daily lives, so they can safely transition back to their communities.

While the whole team played an essential role in his recovery, Tony's OTs jumped at the opportunity to help him get back to doing what he loves most by implementing cooking-inspired activity into his therapy plan.

"We worked on improving his pinch and grip strength and fine motor movements which are essential components in preparing meatballs, his favorite signature dish." says Emily Newton, an OT who worked alongside Tony during his time at Toronto Rehab.

Tony says, "everyone who helped me was so kind.

"I think that's one of the reasons I really pushed myself, because I had a lot of support behind me.

"And it worked."

Tony Vettraino achieved his goal of getting back to the kitchen. (Photo: Courtesy Tony Vettraino)

Occupational Goals Are Personal Goals

October is Occupational Therapy Awareness Month, a chance at UHN and beyond recognizes the important work done by OTs, occupational therapy assistants, physiotherapy assistants and rehab assistants.

These professionals support patients with physical, cognitive, and mental health issues to optimize their abilities to integrate into community living and participate more fully in the activities that mean the most to them. They work with patients work together to identify goals that are meaningful and develop individualized treatment plans.

"At the core of our practice is helping people find their meaning or purpose," says Tess Devji, an OT at Lyndhurst who helped Tony return to his daily living tasks.

"Understanding why an activity is important to someone and how it fits within their life, whether that's a paid occupation or a self-care or leisure activity, helps us as OTs to assess the patient's situation holistically, to find out what is best for that individual."

Born into a traditional Italian family, Tony has always equated the act of cooking to time spent with his loved ones.

"Every time I cook, I try to copy one of my mother's recipes," he says. "That brings me closer to her, even though she's not here anymore."

Tony describes cooking as one of his favourite pastimes – he is famous for his cabbage soup, among other classic Italian dishes. This was something he expressed to his OTs as something he wanted to be able to do again.

"I usually do a big pot with spareribs and sausages, diced onions, carrots and potatoes and cabbage," Tony says. "So that's really complex. All that chopping will take me at least a couple of hours, especially now… but I still enjoy it."

Emily also worked with Tony to navigate the kitchen using his power wheelchair and his two-wheeled walker to practice reaching different areas in the kitchen. They also practiced accessing the sink, washing dishes, and completing other necessary tasks that he would need to re-learn upon returning to own kitchen at home.

"As Tony got stronger and improved coordination in his hands, we started practicing peeling vegetables like carrots and potatoes for his soup," she says. "Simulating some of the activities that Tony would complete as a part of meal prep helped him to feel more at ease with his transition back home."

Since Tony has returned home, he said his mobility has improved significantly, and he is able to walk short distances without using a walker. He's also been practicing his cooking and is now able to make a full meal on his own.

"Since I've been home, I made about 20 or 30 meatballs in my own kitchen at one time," he says. "My brother said that our mom would be proud of me, because they taste exactly like hers."

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