Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Jess translates studies into words that families understand

By Louise Kinross

Jess Silver is passionate about health and how we translate research into words the average person can understand. She works as a research assistant in Holland Bloorview’s Prism lab, where one of her roles is to write and edit materials targeted to youth and families. We spoke about how her own experiences growing up with a disability inform her work.

BLOOM: How did you get into this field?

Jess Silver:
My passion with medicine and health came out of my own experience growing up with cerebral palsy. I was always looking for other avenues to improve my own situation. I wanted to go to medical school, but I knew that would be challenging because of my physical limitations.

I found out about a medical communications program at the University of Chicago on how to create content that will be easily understood by the general public. I graduated from that program, and now in the work I’m doing, I feel I have a responsibility to help other patients and their families understand clinically what they’re going through. I’ve always been looking for innovative perspectives and solutions that can help me and benefit other people.

BLOOM: What is a typical day like for you?

Jess Silver:
I may be editing or writing materials, or scoping out medical databases on a particular topic.

BLOOM: What’s an example?

Jess Silver:
Right now I’m working on a project to see whether meditation can benefit a child using a brain-controlled interface to communicate. A lot of the work we do in the Prism lab involves developing technology that allows children who are non-verbal to communicate.

In general, I look at how to edit syntax and grammar and language to make it concise and understandable for the families we’re working with today.

One of my most interesting projects to date was working on an article about Holland Bloorview’s family engagement program in research. I was writing about what the family engagement program does at Holland Bloorview, but also including my own informed perspective as a patient.

BLOOM: Did you come to Holland Bloorview as a child?

Jess Silver:
Yes. I went there mainly for physical therapy. I did physio and the Fit and Flex exercise program. I also saw Dr. Wedge for pain, and when I was older I saw Dr. Fehlings.

BLOOM: Did you feel you got the services that you needed?

Jess Silver:
Yes. I felt the resources were there. But as a family, we were always looking for more. We believe in Eastern medicine, and we were always looking for alternative approaches to compliment the conventional ones.

BLOOM: Was it challenging for you to move to adult care?

Jess Silver:
There were gaps. My parents and I had to do everything on our own, in terms of finding who was going to help me, and what was out there to benefit me. We did receive services through the transition team here, but when I went to university, I found all of the advocacy, and figuring out how everything would work, and how I’d be integrated, fell to me. I felt like I was well prepared, but it I still found it incredibly challenging.

I did my undergrad at Glendon College, and I was the only one in a wheelchair at my campus. I had to explain to everyone that these are my challenges, this is what I need assistance with, and this is how we can work together. Then it was trying to get people to realize that although I have this challenge, it doesn’t mean I’m so different from you. I’m here to get my education.

BLOOM: What is the greatest challenge of your work with the Prism lab?

Jess Silver:
The most challenging thing is not having an engineering background, and having to understand the terminology and the workings of devices that are created in the lab. You need to understand protocols for how to develop materials that are digestible for patients, but you also need to understand yourself how this device works and is constructed. Most of the other staff are engineers.

BLOOM: I’ve always had a pet peeve with academic language. I wish we could see lay language in journals.

Jess Silver:
It does make things more difficult. What I find so rewarding now is being able to understand that language and, because of my background, knowing how to present it in a way that everyone will understand. When I was a kid and didn’t understand, I'd say ‘Whoa, what did that physician or specialist just say?’ But now I know what they said and it’s rewarding to be able to translate it.

BLOOM: You mentioned that you work remotely?

Jess Silver:
Yes. I live in Thornhill and it was difficult for me to commute every day. Also, because of my physical needs, I need assistance from someone for my personal needs. Working remotely allows me to do what I have to do in order to have my quality of life, but still work.

One thing I do find challenging is not being able to be at every meeting or event. But the team is very open to it and accepting. It’s just my responsibility to remind them that I have to be on the meeting with Zoom, or I need to access certain materials.

BLOOM: What’s the greatest joy of your job?

Jess Silver:
It’s to know that I went from being a patient, and somebody who lives the experiences that many of our kids do, to working as part of the hospital. I can speak to many of our clients’ challenges through my own experiences, and am able to write in a way that can help a family understand a condition or be able to find the care or resources they need.

I also run my own non-profit for adapted fitness and sports called Flex for Access.

BLOOM: How does that work?

Jess Silver:
It creates awareness and raises funds to facilitate adaptive training sessions for individuals who have physical challenges. So we would fund a person’s training, and connect them with a gym or studio that can do it.

BLOOM: I notice you use the word challenge and not disability.

Jess Silver:
Yes. I feel that everyone has some kind of challenge, on some level, and mine is just more visible because I use a wheelchair. I never let my disability get in the way of things that I do and pursue. Just this weekend I went indoor skydiving. Through my job at Holland Bloorview, and running my own non-profit, I feel I’m an agent of change.

BLOOM: If you could change one thing about children’s rehab—or research into it—what would it be?

Jess Silver:
That’s a good, but difficult, question to answer, because there are many things. I’d encourage people, if they’re given one diagnosis, or one option for rehab, or one way of thinking about a diagnosis, try not to be boxed into that. Okay, yes, this is what it is. But seek other options.

If I could change something in research, it would be to bring a more holistic perspective to the interventions offered as possibly being helpful. For example, the article I mentioned looking at how meditation can or can’t help kids communicate.


Jess, you are such a positive role model. You continue to impress me with your accomplishments.