Mar 01, 2013
By Tara Tosh Kennedy

Healing trauma, inside and out

After a car crash, Joanne Charron put her life back together and became a better trauma therapist

Teckles Photography Inc.Charron works with social workers, an occupational therapist and psychiatrists in a treatment program for clients with post-traumatic stress disorder and complex PTSD. As the team’s nurse trauma therapist, Charron draws on her nursing skills and her background in trauma psychotherapy.

She remembers everything about her daughter’s wedding in August 1998. The bride was beautiful, and the day was lovely. But the following morning, 20 minutes into the long drive back to London, Ont., the wheels of Joanne Charron’s car touched the gravel on the shoulder of the highway, causing it to flip three times. When the car finally came to a stop, the top of Charron’s head was cut open from front to back and her spine was fractured.

Her spinal cord was nearly severed. She had broken ribs, a broken collarbone, deep lacerations and numbness throughout much of her body. Stainless steel Harrington rods had to be implanted along her spine from her waist to her neck.

At the time, Charron happened to be on leave from her nursing job in a community mental health clinic in Sault Ste. Marie to take care of an elderly family member. For the next 12 months, though, she could do very little else but lie on her side. “I watched so many movies,” she says. It helped that she had a kinship with the nurses and physicians taking care of her and knew what to expect during her treatment.

Her partner (also injured in the accident, but less severely) and her two daughters provided support and encouragement. At the eight-month mark, however, Charron was beginning to feel dispirited. Well-acquainted with the symptoms of depression from her extensive training, she started fighting back and enrolled in a master’s of science in nursing program. She learned to hold a book differently, allowing her to read while lying on her side. By the time the program started, she was able to sit up at her computer for a short time in a special chair. She relied on voice-recognition software to write papers.

It was another three years before Charron was ready to go back to work.

In 2001, she joined a highly specialized team comprising social workers, an occupational therapist and psychiatrists at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC). Clients with post-traumatic stress disorder and complex PTSD are the focus of the treatment program the team has developed. As its nurse trauma therapist, Charron draws on her nursing skills and her background in trauma psychotherapy.

The program, Charron says, has been successful in preventing clients from going through repeated admissions to psychiatric units, visits to emergency and inaccurate diagnoses. “The personal and professional rewards for me are enormous,” she explains. “I get to help people get their lives back and begin to function again. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Charron worked in intensive care, cardiac care and medical-surgical areas before deciding to specialize in mental health. She says her awareness of the range of circumstances in the lives of her clients —relationships, other health issues, plans for the future — comes from her broad experience in nursing. Because of her own ordeal, she gained a deeper understanding of her clients and a better grasp of the long process of healing trauma.

Among the symptoms of PTSD and complex PTSD is dissociation, which affects how people relate to others and view themselves. Late last year, the team launched a 36-week dissociative disorders treatment group, an approach that was the topic of Charron’s master’s thesis. To her knowledge, the initiative is one of the first of its kind in Canada.

She gets opportunities to educate health-care providers at LHSC in how to work with clients who have the disorders, and these are important to her. She shares her expertise with others in the trauma field, including staff at sexual assault centres and mental health agencies, and tries to get the word out to the wider community that trauma-informed care is effective.

“Our team has been operating for 12 years, but quietly in a corner,” she says. “I think that is starting to change, and it’s exciting. We get quite a few referrals from physicians, agencies and LHSC’s emergency department because our clients most often do get better. They stop being suicidal. They start going to work. They develop better relationships.” Unfortunately, she adds, there are hundreds of people in the London area alone who are on the waiting list for treatment.

Other facilities are showing interest in the work Charron and her colleagues are doing. But she is certain that if there were greater awareness of how treatable the disorders are, more programs like the one she is involved in would be springing up across the country.

She’s enthusiastic about her work, to the point that one might think she is letting it take over, but she cherishes downtime, too. Her health isn’t at 100 per cent, and she’s had to adapt to living with pain and making it a priority to take good care of herself: “I have to be attuned to my body and what it needs.” She loves hosting “wine and whine” nights for her friends and relishes time with her dogs, her partner and her five grandchildren. Her life, she says, has regained its balance.

10 questions with Joanne Charron

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’d like to retrieve the three inches of height I lost in my car accident

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Becoming a mother and a grandmother

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I have been a champion 10-pin bowler

“If I had more free time, I would….”
Write, read and cook — and laugh more than I already do

What is the one place in the world you’d most like to visit?

What is your biggest regret?
My work keeps me miles away from my family in northern Ontario

What was the last good book you read?
Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent

If there was a single person who inspired you to become a nurse, who was it?
A candystriper I saw when I was six. I was sure she was a nurse!

If you had the power to make one change to the health-care system, what would it be?
Eradicate stigma and prejudice so that everyone can receive safe and dignified care

Tara Tosh Kennedy is a freelance journalist and artist in Ottawa, Ontario.
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