Community activist

Emily Hunter is committed to helping people battle osteoporosis

Emily Hunter is committed to helping people battle osteoporosis
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Healthy Living Awards 2010

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Summer 2010

Physiotherapist Emily Hunter hands her patient a broomstick and asks her to pretend it's her vacuum cleaner.

The patient, Sheila Hirt, demonstrates her vacuuming technique, under the watchful eye of the long-time health professional.

"Step forward and use your legs, not your arms," Hunter advises, taking a turn to demonstrate.

The discussion of vacuuming technique is just part of a long, practical session in which physiotherapist and patient go through a wide range of daily activities and exercises in order to help Hirt, who has recently been diagnosed with osteoporosis, stay fit and healthy.

Hunter specializes in working with patients who have osteoporosis, a condition of low bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue that can lead to fractures. She advises them on exercises to build and protect bones, and shows how to adapt the way they work, sit and move in order to prevent injury.

Her long-term commitment to helping Manitobans take control of their health recently won her a Healthy Living Award from the Reh-Fit Centre.

She combines practical advice with encouragement.

"Your movement's good," she tells Hirt, who demonstrates her daily routine of exercise and stretching. "Your alignment's great."

Hunter also points out no-nos - such as sitting up in bed to read, which can cause damaging bending of the spine. Instead, she advises her book-loving patient to sit in an armchair with the book resting on pillows on her lap.

"We don't want to scare you to death, but we want you to start changing things," Hunter tells her.

Helping people make changes to manage or prevent osteoporosis has been a big part of her practice ever since she became a founding member of Osteoporosis Canada's Manitoba Chapter about 15 years ago. Today, she is a member of the chapter's executive committee and the education chair.

In that capacity she does as many as 15 presentations per year to community groups - from school children to seniors - through the organization's Speaking of Bones program. In a "train the trainer" program called Bone Up, Hunter, along with a nutritionist, a pharmacist, and a kinesiologist train health-care providers to safely treat people with osteoporosis.

Hunter also works with breast cancer survivors, who are particularly at risk for osteoporosis as a side-effect of their treatment. Every two months she participates in osteoporosis workshops organized by CancerCare Manitoba.

All that involvement with Osteoporosis Canada is in addition to her business, Hunter Physiotherapy, which employs five other physiotherapists. Hunter, who entered the profession in 1968 after studying at the University of Manitoba, opened her first clinic in 1989 and moved to her current Provencher Boulevard location in 1993.

She's an orthopedic physiotherapist, working with patients of all ages with injuries to their knees, shoulders, back or neck. Because of her involvement with osteoporosis, she has many patients referred to her by physicians or other physiotherapists.

That's what brought Hirt to Hunter's clinic. After a bone density test revealed that her osteopenia (the precursor to osteoporosis) had progressed to osteoporosis, she called Osteoporosis Canada to find a physio and the organization referred her to Hunter.

"Sheila has been smart enough to be proactive," says Hunter, who is full of praise for her patient's commitment to her exercise program, which she began 15 years ago when she was first diagnosed with osteopenia.

Working with osteoporosis patients has influenced the way Hunter looks at just about everybody who comes through her doors.

"In the last 15 years, it has changed the way I look at somebody," she says. "If somebody comes in and they are 50 or more, or even if they are younger, I will ask 'Do you drink milk or soy?' 'Do you take calcium or vitamin D?'"

She has seen just how widespread osteoporosis is. It affects one woman in four, and for Aboriginal women, the rate can be as high as one in two.

And while osteoporosis is usually thought of as a condition affecting women, it also affects as many as one in eight men, and one in four in the Aboriginal community.

"The more men they test, the more they find," she says.

Looking at the sedentary, indoor lifestyle of today's young people, Hunter worries that the future may see even higher rates of osteoporosis, both because they aren't getting enough weight-bearing exercise and they don't get outside enough to absorb vitamin D from sunlight. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium in order to build strong bones.

"With our kids spending time in front of the computer or television, there's going to be an even bigger epidemic," she says. "The groundwork is laid for our good bones as children. That's why we sometimes think of osteoporosis as a pediatric problem that manifests itself later in life."

That's why the Manitoba chapter of Osteoporosis Canada developed a program called Sip and Skip, in which elementary school children are encouraged to keep track of their calcium intake and exercise. The program won the Manitoba/Saskatchewan Speaking of Food and Healthy Living Award from Dietitians of Canada this spring.

Factors contributing to osteoporosis include genetics, diet (not getting enough calcium and vitamin D), lack of weightbearing exercise, and taking medications, such as those for rheumatoid arthritis, that block the absorption of calcium. While vitamin D can be absorbed from sunlight, the combination of winter clothing, short days and low-angle sunlight means that for much of the year Canadians can't count on the sun to help them, so supplements and vitamin D-enriched dairy products are important.

Consequences of osteoporosis, in addition to the immediate pain of a broken bone, can be a loss of mobility, something Hunter understands first-hand.

She's just getting back in action after knee replacement surgery in March to correct an old curling injury.

As her new knee gradually improves, she will go back to walking, biking, golf and curling. She also leads an exercise class involving floor exercises, weights and Pilates. "I have an ulterior motive," she jokes. "It's to make me exercise."

Staying active, keeping her body strong, enjoying her work, and spending time with family and "a fabulous network of friends" are all part of her vision of a healthy life.

Her recent experience recovering from surgery reinforced her belief that community is an important part of healthy living.

"The month after my surgery, there wasn't a day that somebody didn't drop in. People brought food, they visited. Now I've promised that I'm going to do the same when somebody I know is sick."

Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg writer.

Healthy Living Awards 2010

In a bid to promote healthy lifestyles, the Reh-Fit Centre has established the Healthy Living Awards. Given out each year, the awards celebrate organizations and individuals who have made a contribution to promoting healthy living in the community, says Sue Boreskie, Chief Executive Officer of the Reh-Fit Centre. Since 1999, 173 Manitobans or Manitoba organizations have been recognized for promoting community health by encouraging active living. In this issue of Wave, the Winnipeg Health Region joins with the Reh-Fit Centre in saluting the two individual winners of the Healthy Living Award selected earlier this year.

For more information on how to nominate a person or an organization for an award, click here.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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