Education doesn’t end in the classroom for Kathy Mitchell, the Algonquin College professor who was the winner of the International Alliance of ALS/MND Associations’ 2009 Humanitarian Award at last month’s 20th annual symposium in Berlin.
Mitchell, who has been a professor for 22 years at the college, won the award for her work in Europe, increasing awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Motor Neurone Disease.
“It was the most amazing honour in my career,” said Mitchell. “The people who receive this honour in the past have devoted their entire careers to helping people with ALS.”
The award is given to an individual from a non-scientific background who makes a contribution of international significance for people affected by the disease.
“I have worked in eastern Europe, primarily in Serbia,” said Mitchell, who does her work during her vacation time from the college. “I worked in conjunction with a neurologist, Dr. Zorica Stevic. She’s invited me to come and work together with her.”
Mitchell has travelled to Serbia during the summer for the past five years to work at a neurological centre in Belgrade. Stevic and Mitchell have conducted several workshops to increase public and political awareness and knowledge about the disease, as well as patient comfort and autonomy. Much of her work is done with the Canadian Embassy and the Serbian minister of health.
Commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a “devastating neurodegenerative disease,” the ALS Society says on its website. “Those living with the disease become progressively paralyzed due to degeneration of the upper and lower motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord.”
ALS has been linked to other neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Eighty per cent of patients die within two to five years of diagnosis.
As a professor in the faculty of health, public safety and community studies programs at the college, Mitchell said the inspiration for her work with the disease was to “change healthcare so that patients benefit.”
According to Mitchell, Canadian patients dealing with the disease “are very well served,” but when she went to Serbia, Mitchell saw how little funding and support patients had to deal with the disease.
Five years of work later, “patients in Serbia have options that they never had before. They have options for nutritional and respiratory support. Their government is starting to be aware of the complex needs of these patients,” said Mitchell.
“You have no idea about the impact you’re going to make,” said Mitchell. “I think the ability to make small changes that have lasting impact is really exciting.”