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St. Michael's goes to the Oscars® – Part 1

In the first of a three-part series, we connect St. Michael's researchers and clinicians to the Best Picture nominees

Toronto, February 23, 2011

On Sunday, February 27, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences® will be handing out the Oscars® for the best of the best in cinema from Hollywood and around the world.

The 83rd Academy Awards® will feature 10 nominees for Best Picture.

What's the connection between St. Michael's and the Oscars®? Other than the fact that all our researchers, educators and clinicians are stars? Many of this year Best Picture nominations touch on physical or mental health issues that are treated or studied here at St. Michael's. We'd like to highlight some of that leading research and patient care in the days leading up to the 83rd Annual Academy Awards® on Sunday.

Black Swan

Black Swan is a psychological thriller set in New York City that follows the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a young ballet dancer, through her journey as prima ballerina in Swan Lake. The production requires a dancer who can play both the innocent White Swan with grace and the sensual Black Swan. While Nina is perfect for the role of the White Swan, a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), is a good fit for the role of the Black Swan. As the competition heats up between the two young dancers and their rivalry extends into a twisted friendship, Nina explores her dark side.

As the movie details Nina's life as a ballerina and her struggles with the production, viewers catch a glimpse of the rigour of ballet dancing. For many dancers, ankle sprains and fractures, which often lead to ankle arthritis, are a common problem.

Dr. Tim Daniels is a Canadian expert on the topic. Daniels and his colleagues at St. Michael's Hospital perform more foot surgeries than anyone else in Canada and more ankle replacements than anyplace else in the world, and produce the most research papers on the subject globally. Now, Daniels is conducting innovative research into ankle arthritis that includes total joint replacement and will be opening a new lab that recreates environmental conditions in the city. This will help him evaluate how a person walks to help find ways to better deal with foot and ankle complications. St. Michael's Foundation is raising funds to establish Canada's first Chair in Foot and Ankle Research.

Winter's Bone

With an absent father and a mentally ill mother, it's left to 17 year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) to keep her family together in a dirt poor rural area of the Ozark Mountains. Without money from her father Jessup, a longtime crystal meth maker, Ree struggles to raise her two younger siblings and depends of the kindness of a neighbour. When Jessup skips bail, the sheriff informs the family he put their house up for collateral. Unless he shows up for trial in a week's time, the family will lose everything.

Winter's Bone highlights how vulnerable some people are to losing their homes for many reasons Рnot just through forfeitures or other court orders, but through joblessness, poverty, illness, drug abuse, family breakup. In Canada, for every one person who is homeless, another 23 are "vulnerably housed," according to a recent report by Dr. Stephen Hwang, a researcher with the Centre for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael's. Those people live in unsafe, crowded or unaffordable housing and have the same severe health problems and risk of assault as homeless people, according to Hwang, one of Canada’s most prominent researchers on homelessness, In 2005, the federal government estimated there were 150,000 homeless Canadians, or about 0.5 per cent of the population, although homeless advocates have always said the number was much higher. Hwang is currently working on a national research project to find the best way to provide housing and specialized services in the community to people who face mental illness and homelessness.

The King's Speech

The King's Speech tells the story of the soon-to-be King George VI, the father of the current Queen, Elizabeth II. After his brother abdicates, George 'Bertie' VI (Colin Firth) reluctantly assumes the throne. Plagued by a dreaded nervous stammer and considered unfit to be King, Bertie engages the help of an unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), and learns the psychological root of his stuttering problem. Through a set of unexpected techniques – ranging from jumping jacks to a swearing rant in an attempt to loosen his vocal cords – Bertie is able to find his voice and boldly lead the country into war.

As the King's struggle to gain control of his speech unfolds, the audience is exposed to the complexity of a speech problem, and the range of possible treatment techniques. At St. Michael's Hospital, speech pathologist Janet Wu and her team treat speech and language problems for post-stroke patients, and provide voice rehabilitation and management for patients who have difficulty swallowing their pills or foods/liquids. The swallowing disorders clinic is piloting an innovative test, fiberoptic endoscopy – the use of a small flexible tube which passes through the nasal passage to the throat – which enables them to access and view the swallowing mechanism in the voice box area. Wu sits on the Canadian panel for HIV rehabilitation in speech-language pathology, and is currently working on a project looking at aging and HIV, and rehabilitation in speech language for HIV patients.