LGH doctor is challenging what it means to be disabled

Emergency physician Dr. Vanessa Knight, who was born with one hand, is a longtime advocate and mentor for people who are disabled.

Silvia Cademartori 3 minute read December 1, 2021

Lakeshore General Hospital emergency physician Dr. Vanessa Knight (right) meets with patient Line Daviault. Knight was born with one hand and despite everything, she is able to perform her job with dexterity. Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

Dr. Vanessa Knight’s accomplishments are impressive: emergency ward doctor, rock climber and former competitive skier. What makes her achievements more remarkable is that Knight has accomplished them single-handedly. Literally.

Knight was born without a left hand, but from her new job as an ER doctor at Lakeshore General Hospital in Pointe-Claire, to skiing on Canada’s Paralympic team and being a War Amps ambassador, Knight has never shied away from reaching for the brass ring.

“I’m definitely someone who is a little bit stubborn. I kind of wanted to do things on my own and I wasn’t accepting of help initially, but then I realized that everyone kind of needs a little bit of help along the way,” Knight said.

A native of Baie-D’Urfé, Knight has been working at the LGH for less than a year. The McGill University-trained physician uses a prosthetic arm to do some medical interventions, like intubating patients and prefers to use just her right hand for others, like applying casts. The prosthetic arm fits onto her forearm like a silicone sleeve. It covers a casing on her arm fitted with electrodes on two sides that respond to movements in her muscles.

“I can move the end of my stump up or down and that will cause a flexion or extension in the muscles higher up on my arm where the electrodes are placed. If I flex downward, it will close my prosthetic and if I extend upwards, it will open it,” Knight explained.

Whether rock climbing, which Knight took up after taking a course in CEGEP, or something more serious like working in the ER, Knight said she has had to learn to doing things differently: “I’m just so stubborn I find a way … In the beginning, I may have had a little trouble with intubation, which is putting a tube down someone’s larynx to help them breathe, that’s one of the two-handed procedures, … but I had people behind me every step of the way and helping me tweak little things and use special devices to help me get it.”

Dr. Robin Nathanson, the assistant medical chief of the Lakeshore ER, said people are taken aback by Knight’s ability to complete procedures: “As an emergency physician, we have certain expected competencies, for example, wound repair, sutures, intubation and placing central lines. These are all complex procedures that require a certain degree of dexterity and it’s absolutely incredible that Dr. Knight is able to accomplish these flawlessly without help.”

Not everyone has been so enthusiastic about Knight becoming a doctor. “There were some professors who maybe wouldn’t like the idea of having someone with a disability in the program and they were a little more vocal about it,” Knight said, adding that classmates and most professors were supportive, as are her colleagues at the hospital.

Knight credits her family and friends for letting her find out for herself the things she couldn’t do. Knight contemplated becoming a surgeon at one point. “That would have been a little much for me,” she said.

Having Knight in the ER is “a reminder that we are all too human and I think we have all, no matter who, experienced a challenge,” Nathanson said.

A War Amps volunteer since her teens, Knight gives presentations and mentors other amputees who are considering a future in healthcare. “I think I have pretty unique experiences and I have overcome obstacles … so I definitely have something to share with them,” Knight said.

Knight said society has a lot of work to do in accepting people who are disabled and she will continue doing her part: “I want to be there for other people who might not have had the support I did.”

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