Heroes – that’s who physiatrist Dr. Gary Linassi sees every day in his practice.
“What we often witness is incredible determination. It’s inspiring to see the strength and resilience of the human spirit in times of major life challenges,” he says of the patients with spinal cord injuries and amputations who he treats as part of a team of inter-disciplinary professionals, including physiatrists, nurses, therapists, psychologists, prosthetists and orthotists, among others, at Saskatoon City Hospital.
Dr. Gary Linassi
Physiatry, better known as physical medicine and rehabilitation, is a branch of medicine specifically dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of people with a physical disability.
“Most physicians deal with illness and possible threats to life. Physiatrists deal with functional loss and threats to living fully and independently,” Dr. Linassi explains, adding that spinal cord injuries – his specialty – are often catastrophic injuries that happen to young people in the prime of their lives.
“It’s a very sobering experience to see real adversity – to see people who have put a plan in place that they can’t follow through on,” he says. “That’s why I call them heroes. They’re amazing people.”
Dr. Linassi recalls a patient in particular who had both of his legs amputated.
“When I first met him, he was a frail person, struggling to sit up, let alone stand. When he realized why I was there, he looked at me straight in the eyes and said, ‘Don’t you dare give up on me,’” Dr. Linassi says, adding that the man is now walking with two artificial limbs and often volunteers for his department’s undergraduate teaching program.
Dr. Linassi now describes this man as one of his favourite people, because he didn’t give up on himself.
“He inspired me to be the best doctor I could be, but it wasn’t just me, he inspired the entire team,” he says, adding that there are very few people who give up. “They don’t come here to give up. We make it a condition that they’re going to actively participate.”
Dr. Linassi says that he and his team have to be highly adaptable to people’s needs, because everyone they encounter copes differently.
“Our job is to find their hope, to support it and to let it re-grow. That’s what we do,” he says of himself and his team. “In our model of healthcare, the person is at the centre. They define what their needs are, what their goals are, and we follow their lead. We can’t always help people walk again, but we can look at every alternative that gets them from A to B.”
In addition to working with patients who have spinal cord injuries and amputations, Dr. Linassi also treats patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease (also known as ALS or motor neuron disease). He’s also the unified head of physical medicine and rehabilitation with Saskatoon Health Region and the University of Saskatchewan – a role that involves the responsibility of providing rehabilitation services to approximately 500,000 people in the province, including the north, and delivering academic programming for the distributed educational sites. Additionally, he heads a robust interdisciplinary research program, oversees a 10-person residency program and teaches undergraduate medical school students.
“There’s a strong legacy of academic excellence at the U of S medical school that I hope I’m contributing to and strengthening,” he says. “There are benefits of learning from learners, who are at the peak of their knowledge, and their ever-present feedback keeps me humble. To be able to influence the next generation of physicians is a very fulfilling experience.”
“I still very much consider it a privilege to work as a physician and feel excited about going to work every day,” he adds. “I’ve been fortunate to find a job that couples my academic interests with medical practice.”
Dr. Linassi was 32 years old when he decided to study medicine. At the time, he was working as a geologist at a gold mine.
“I spent most of my time either several hundred meters underground or on the surface of the Canadian Shield,” he says, adding that he also worked in mines in Northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick.
He sees parallels in both the mine and hospital in terms of the importance of building a culture of safety. It was the unfortunate occupational injuries that often occur in the mining business that eventually led Dr. Linassi to medical school in Cork, Ireland.
“At the time, it wasn’t common to do medical school overseas, but I was looking for an adventure,” he says, adding that it’s also where he met his Irish wife of 14 years.
“It still feels like I’ve won the lottery,” he says affectionately of his wife. They now have two daughters, aged eight and 12. His youngest recently took an interest in the fiddle, a traditional Irish instrument, and Dr. Linassi is learning to play too – though he good-naturedly says he’s fallen behind his daughter in terms of skill.
“It’s a very unforgiving instrument,” he says with a chuckle.
Dr. Linassi also likes to watch sports with his eldest daughter, to volunteer at his local parish, and to ride his bike for an hour outside early every morning before work, including in the cold winter months.
“I solve a lot of administrative challenges, on my bike and get to see a bit of the countryside” he says, with a relaxed smile.