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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Body and soul: CAMH Neurologist’s work bridges medicine and the arts

Toronto, August 16, 2016 - ​Dr. Suvendrini Lena, CAMH’s Neurologist, recalls feeling a certain degree of apprehension as she approached the final years of her neurology residency at the University of Toronto. To graduate, she needed to complete a research project.

“I love reading and interpreting research but conducting research was not my forte. Actually, I was dreading it.”

But she was fascinated by neurology and in particular the challenges presented by epilepsy, and wanted to tell that story. She went out on a limb and pitched an idea to one of the senior neurology professors at the University of Toronto: Dr. Richard Wennberg. 

“I asked him if I could write a play instead, telling a story about epilepsy. He said sure.” Dr. Wennberg specializes in epilepsy and concussion, and agreed to be an advisor on the project. The Neurology Program Director Dr. Marika Hohol – who has a soft spot for theatre -- gave the final approval. “That was the beginning of a joyful new chapter for me,” says Suvendrini. 

Dr. Suvendrini Lena“A joyful new chapter” -- Dr. Suvendrini Lena

Writing about what I see and know

Suvendrini caught the writing bug earlier, when as a teenager she returned from a 21-day canoe trip on the Seal River in Northern Manitoba. She crafted a story informed by that wilderness journey. “Rather than creating imaginary characters, I wanted to write about the things I see around me, and the people I know.” As an adult, she began to use her writing to reveal the powers of the human mind, and to humanize the medical professionals who care for the bodies and souls of their patients.

She used that same approach to write her first play at U of T – The Enchanted Loom. It tells the story of a Sri Lankan journalist and refugee whose epilepsy results from a head injury related to torture. His condition presents a conundrum: “What will be the impact of surgery on the patient, on his uniqueness as a person?” she asks? “Once a piece of his brain is removed to treat the epilepsy, the surgery can never be undone.”

And on a more metaphorical level: “Does survival necessitate the excision of trauma? Does amnesia allow functional recovery?”

Suvendrini arranged for professional actors to present a scene of the play for an audience of neurologists at a U of T conference on seizure research and treatment.

“We received a standing ovation, and there were many people in the audience with tears in their eyes,” she recalls.

Seeing doctors as people

She believes part of that emotional response was about “seeing doctors as people. In our culture doctors are authority figures, they are rarely humanized.” As a result, they may keep their own feelings and vulnerabilities intensely private, leading to addiction and health problems. The play also speaks to the journey of Tamil refugees, a subject close to the heart of Suvendrini, who is a Sri Lankan of Tamil and Singhalese origin.

Seven years later, Suvendrini’s play will be staged this fall at Toronto’s Factory Theatre by Cahoots – a theatre company that specializes in staging diversity, with funding from the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Arts Council, and private foundations. The Enchanted Loom is described as “a heart-breaking family drama set against the liberation struggle of the Tamil people, sure to challenge, engage and intrigue.” The play’s title, from a scientific treatise by Charles Sherrington, is a metaphor for the mystery, beauty and complexity of the human brain.

Cahoots websiteCahoots website 

Suvendrini’s involvement in the arts spans many other projects, including a U of T theatre workshop for postgraduate medical trainees called “Staging Medicine,” in collaboration with The Theatre Centre and the Medicine and Humanities Program. Among many other arts projects, she is also developing:

  • a project to set EEG (electroencephalogram recordings of the brain’s electrical activity) to music, while telling the story of the EEG’s inventor, German psychiatrist Hans Berger
  • an immersive theatre project about schizophrenia and the work of Martinique psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, with The Theatre Centre.

Applying neurology to help CAMH clients

Suvendrini’s other full time job is as CAMH’s Neurologist, working in the Geriatric Mental Health Program. She helps clients with conditions ranging from Parkinson’s to chronic headaches , and regularly assesses EEG and other neurological results for patient care. A recent enhancement of I-CARE – CAMH’s clinical information system -- allows a much speedier posting of her analysis on EEG directly to the client’s chart.

Suvendrini loves her job as a neurologist working “at the heart of a psychiatric hospital,” she says. “I try to integrate the understanding of the brain as an organ into everything that I do as a clinician and teacher. As the body’s most complex and important organ, the brain is poorly understood, compared to other organs such as the heart.”

Brain cloud

She notes that investigation into the brain continues to unlock human potential in the areas of memory, mobility and health, including ways we can stimulate and nourish our brains and minds. But the brain’s complexity – like an Enchanted Loom – still poses enormous challenges, she says.

Even in a specialized area such as epilepsy surgery -- where areas of the brain have been carefully mapped out starting with the work of acclaimed Montreal neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield -- medicine still has a long road ahead to expand the precision and power of surgical intervention to treat and cure patients.

Suvendrini adds that an organic approach integrating “both body and soul” is essential to help people who struggle with mental health and neurological disease.

In the same way, she continues to integrate healing through her chosen profession of medicine and her passion for the arts.

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Related news:

Suvendrini  blogs about the writing process and how theatre can change the world.

(Suvendrini has requested that we include this link for those who may wish to make an online donation to support the production through the Cahoots website.)

CAMH has been working with Tamil leaders in community agencies to build a refugee mental health framework.

Dr. Suvendrini Lena(Image courtesy of Cahoots Theatre, Marjorie Chan blog)

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