Anita Kaiser was well on the path to a career in business, when a car accident sent her in another direction. Now she’s working on a Ph.D. that will help her make her mark in the area spinal cord injury rehabilitation. As a new mom, she’s creating innovative, hands-free ways to care for her growing baby girl. Here she speaks with ABILITY Magazine.
ABILITY Magazine: We’ve noticed that you’ve done some writing.
Anita Kaiser: I wrote a health article for a magazine called Outspoken for the Canadian Paraplegic Association. I’ve also published a few mini-research papers.
AM: Before your 1996 injury, what were you doing?
Kaiser: I’d just completed my undergraduate degree and started working full-time as a computer operator. My plan was to work for about a year, make some money and return to school. Ironically, I was looking at studying either physiotherapy or chiropractics. I had the injury and spent a whole year in rehab getting physiotherapy.
AM: So you got injured on purpose, then, just to experience it?
Kaiser: (laughs) I was joking while I was in rehab that, “Oh, I’m here just getting my practical right now, and I’ll go back and get the theory later.” But life has a funny way of working itself out. I studied computers the whole way through university because it helped pay for my education; however, it was kind of off-course for me. I was working in the sciences, but the computer classes were geared more towards business.
So I really felt in many ways that my injury put my life back on track. Being in rehab, I managed to get connected with the right people, so as soon as I completed my therapy, I began volunteering with different organizations in the health care field. Obviously at that point, my focus was spinal cord injury research and rehab. I’ve been in it now for the last 10 or 12 years and really enjoy it.
AM: What did you study?
Kaiser: My undergraduate degree was in applied chemistry and biology, which wasn’t leading toward a career in rehab. I would have been more focused in basic sciences, such as working in a lab for a pharmaceutical company. But I always enjoyed health care, and as I finished my degree I wanted to get into that field, namely physiotherapy and chiropractics. So when my accident happened, I got involved and connected in the research at the hospital and with organizations that were affiliated with the hospital.
AM: What are you doing now?
Kaiser: The master’s degree that I completed before I had my baby was in rehabilitation science, and I’m working on a doctorate in that field. I would like to have a career in rehabilitation science, and to continue conducting research on spinal cord injury to improve the quality of life of people living with it. I’m also involved with the Canadian Spinal Research Organization, which has an affiliated arm, the American Spinal Research Organization. They’re both geared towards finding a cure for paralysis. So I’m very much involved with that as well, although the research that I would do myself once I finish the doctorate would be more in line with rehab.
AM: Are you doing any lab work while you work on your PhD?
Kaiser: No. Although I did lab work while I was completing my master’s, when I got a full scholarship in the last year I had to quit, as one of the criteria for the scholarship is to be in school full-time. I’m still affiliated with the hospital because my university and the hospital are linked, but I’m not working on any other research projects other than my own studies and my thesis. Recently, however, I went on maternity leave.
AM: I heard that you had worked with a program called SMARTRISK.
Kaiser: Yes, SMARTRISK is an organization based here in Canada that is dedicated to preventing injuries and saving lives. One of its programs is SMARTRISK Heroes, which is basically a traveling road show. We go all across Canada and into the States to speak to high school students to encourage them to apply five key principles to their lives that will help to prevent them from being seriously hurt or killed, or getting other individuals hurt or killed.
I tell students about how I got injured, and then from there give them a strategy and principles that they can apply to their lives. High school students are the biggest risk-takers, especially those young men who perceive themselves as being invincible. That’s the age when they start driving, and, of course, there are parties and drinking. The five strategies are: buckle up, drive sober, wear the gear, get trained and think first.
AM: At that age, they feel like they’re bulletproof.
Kaiser: Absolutely. As I look back on my life I think, “Wow, my injury could have happened so much sooner.” And I wasn’t even that high a risk-taker, compared to many teenage boys. But still, there are so many things that we do that are not smart, and that we could do in a much safer way. We take chances that are completely unnecessary.
AM: Tell me a little bit about your talk. How do you describe your situation, and how would it have changed if you had had a program like SMARTRISK before you had the accident?
Kaiser: In my case, I sustained a motor vehicle injury. I was a passenger in my sister’s car. We’d gone on a long road trip to visit friends for a fall weekend. We knew that our tires were bald, but thought, “It’s one last road trip. Once we get back, we’ll change the tires and get the car ready for winter.”
Often, you don’t really think about the long-term consequences of not maintaining your car, especially for a long drive like that. Now I always check out the car, especially the tires, before I even get into it, and make sure I keep up with all the maintenance checks.
In every aspect of life, you have to think about buckling up, not just in the car. It’s buckling up a life jacket or a helmet. “Driving sober” is not just drinking and driving; it’s also avoiding driving when you’re really sleepy or talking on a cell phone, which is a huge problem these days. How can people pay attention to the road if they’re so busy talking on the phone? It’s learning how to be safe in everything you do in life, to limit your chances of injury.
AM: So you had a baby recently?
Kaiser: In January.
AM: Did your doctors express any concerns about you having a child?
Kaiser: My level of injury is different from that of the late Christopher Reeve. He was a quadriplegic as well, but his injury was very high, at the top vertebrae of his neck. He had literally no movement of his arms, nothing basically from the neck down.
AM: He would have had a harder time having a baby…
Kaiser: (laughs) Not necessarily. In general, men with spinal cord injuries have a harder time having a baby than women because many of them will have some form of erectile dysfunction. But it’s not to say that they don’t still have sperm. In some cases, some men are still able to have an erection and have a child on their own, whereas other men may need some sort of intervention to retrieve sperm and implant it in the female. So most women, as long as there isn’t any internal damage can get pregnant naturally, carry a baby full-term and deliver it as well. There’s no reason why you would need a C-section, unless there was a complication.
In my case, my daughter decided to come five weeks early. She was kind of small, and she pretty much slipped out. I didn’t even need any vacuum, forceps or anything like that. The pregnancy and birth went quite smoothly. I think it would for most women with a spinal cord injury. It’s still considered high-risk because of the lack of sensation and movement, so we’re closely monitored throughout the pregnancy. But typically complications would not be expected.
AM: Can you hold your daughter’s bottle?
Kaiser: Oh, yes, that’s what I was going to say. I’m lucky that as a quadriplegic (anyone who has injury in the cervical spine—the neck), I have most of my arm function. Christopher Reeve broke the top two vertebrae in his neck, so he had literally no arm function at all, whereas I broke the bottom two vertebrae in my neck. I don’t have full finger function. Still, I’m actually able to do quite a lot for my child. I can feed her, I can change her, I can dress her. I often use my teeth to help me with fine motor function, such as fastening buttons on her outfits. Sometimes I’ll have to use my teeth if I can’t use the palms of my hand to close it. For changing the diapers, I’ll grab the tops of the diapers with my teeth to close it. So a lot of it is establishing my own style of doing things, but I’ve actually made out quite well.
I’ve gotten some adaptive products. I had a crib built with the railing to move sideways rather than up and down, so I can wheel underneath it. That way I can get in and under the crib to attend to her. I had a table built to my height so I can change her, because most changing tables are very high and often have drawers underneath. So there are a lot of things I can do; it’s just different from how my husband would do them. But I’ve been able to figure out how to do most things for her, except bathing. My husband finds it a challenge, too. He usually tries to get someone else involved and it ends up being a three-person event. We have someone hold the baby, while my husband washes her, and I dry her afterwards.
AM: It sounds like any other young parent in that situation. It takes a village to raise a child.
Kaiser: We’ve been lucky. The family’s been supportive. Especially the first few weeks of dealing with a newborn, which are crazy for any new parent. We’ve had family come in and help us out a lot. We gave in about two or three weeks into the whole process and decided to get a night nanny. So we have a lady who comes in in the evening and stays overnight so we can sleep and be fresh and alert to deal with our daughter during the day. So that’s worked out well.
People have asked me, what it’s like to be a parent. I think I feel like any other person who’s had a baby. We’re obviously excited. I’m happy that I could still have children. It’s always been a dream of mine to have a child. Just like any parent, you want to be the best you can be and be a great model for your child.
I think a lot of times people with disabilities are perceived to be asexual or incapable of taking care of a child. So that’s one of the things that I also consider to be very important, to be able to represent the disability population and prove to extended family members and to society that we can be just as capable as anyone else.
AM: Not that you have much free time right now, what with raising the baby, but what other things do you do for leisure?
Kaiser: Just before I went back to school to do the master’s, I was actually swimming competitively. I swam for about three years. I was actually trying to train for the Olympics, but I didn’t quite make it that far. I was at provincial level training for the national team. Unfortunately, I missed qualifying by just a couple seconds in my final year before I went back to school. I loved water sports. I got certified in scuba diving after my injury. I also got my level 3 sailing rating. I have enjoyed water skiing, downhill skiing, horseback riding and biking.
AM: So you have adaptive programs in different places in Canada?
Kaiser: I got involved in a lot of these things in rehab. I was very athletic before my injury and knowing that I could still get involved in sports helped me to cope with my injury. A lot of the sports I’ve done have been adaptive. Almost every sport that I used to do before, I can still do now, either using modified equipment or a modified process. It’s been great. I really enjoy it. Obviously, I don’t have as much time now, but hopefully as my daughter starts to get a little older, I’ll be able to enjoy some sports with her.
AM: You’ve done mono-skiing?
Kaiser: I haven’t done the mono-ski. But I have done the bi-ski. The mono-ski, I think, is more geared toward paraplegics. You really need to have good upper body position for that. The bi-ski is very similar, it’s just that it’s a bucket seat that sits on two skis.
AM: The mono is a little more difficult, too. Depending on where your level is, the upper body has to be capable of leaning forward. We just came back from a trip to Utah and skied with several people with different levels of spinal cord injury. We checked out the mono-skis, which was—
Kaiser: Oh, you tried it?
AM: It wasn’t as easy as it looked.
Kaiser: I skied a lot before my injury, so I thought it would be quite simple. I thought that because you’re so low to the ground that your whole center of balance would make it easier than it is. It takes some control to get the hang of it.
AM: Do you know a person named Chris Waddell? He’s a multi-gold medal Paralympian. We went to the top of the mountain where they held the Olympic men’s ski event in Utah, and he just went screaming down that mountain. It was just amazing to see him in action.
Kaiser: Some friends of mine have sent pictures of Paralympic skiers, and it’s just phenomenal.
AM: Waddell has also become a public speaker.
Kaiser: Many of them become motivational speakers. What they’ve accomplished really helps inspire other people—disabled or not—to strive for their dreams and pursue whatever it is they feel passionate about.
AM: His new thing is climbing Kilimanjaro. He’s in the process of putting that together now. What are you going to do other than raise a wonderful child? What’s on your to-do list?
Kaiser: I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve been involved with since my injury, all the various organizations, including a hospital that does research geared towards rehab and improving quality of life. Aside from SMARTRISK, I’ve done a lot of work with the Canadian Paraplegic Association, doing peer support by helping people who are newly injured to get on with their lives. I got a lot of great help after my injury, so this is my way to give back.
My master’s degree thesis focused on parenting when one has a spinal cord injury, so that was really great background for me. I’m continuing in that field with the doctorate. One of the things I’d like to do is open a parenting clinic at the rehab hospital where I stayed. We have a gynecology clinic, we have a urology clinic, which also functions a bit as a fertility clinic for the men, but there’s nothing to help women once they’ve become pregnant or have a child. In some cases, individuals who were either thinking about having children or who already have kids get injured, and need to learn how to parent with a disability. I’d like to make sure they have the information, services and support they need.
On personal level, we’re in the middle of building a house that is wheelchair-accessible. We’re hoping to move in soon.
AM: Anything else you might want to share?
Kaiser: In general, I’m really happy with my life. One of my greatest accomplishments, out of everything I’ve done, is having our little girl. I enjoy being a mother, watching her grow and working to raise her to be a wonderful individual who is compassionate and accepting of all individuals, regardless of their abilities.