The 2020 AbbVie IBD scholarship is awarded to resilient, ambitious individuals who are leaders in their communities while also battling either ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Both are types of inflammatory bowel disease that cause mild to debilitating abdominal pain. 

Crohn’s and Colitis Canada only offers this scholarship to 10 postsecondary students annually — and the University of Toronto’s very own Vanessa Reali was one of the well-deserving recipients this year.

Reali is as inspiring as they come — her next career move should be to become a motivational speaker. She was in what she thought would be her final year of her undergraduate degree at McMaster University when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and through a lot of work, she was able to use this experience to look for the silver linings in life. 

Path into nursing

She graduated from McMaster after five years with a double major in biology and psychology, neuroscience & behaviour. Her goal was always to work in health care, but she decided to start out with a broad degree because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do in health care. Crohn’s disease helped her decide.

Like many people, Reali used to have a very superficial understanding of the critical role nurses play in the health care system. After being hospitalized due to Crohn’s disease, Reali saw and understood the vital role nurses play in patient care.

“My surgeon… 100 per cent saved my life, but the nurses were the ones [who] gave [it] back to me,” Reali said in an interview with The Varsity. “They were the ones there [24 hours a day, seven days a week]. They were the ones… [who] shed tears with me; they held my hand.” Reali wanted to do something with that experience, and she couldn’t think of a better way than to pursue nursing herself. 

Reali received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing with distinction from the University of Toronto’s renowned nursing program. Since then, she has been working as a nurse and is currently working as a nurse in the Multi Organ Transplant Inpatient Unit at Toronto General Hospital. Reali is also a preceptor at the hospital — meaning she helps to train the new wave of nurses coming in, whether they are still students or newly joining the hospital.

Nursing through COVID-19

Reali has continued to work during the COVID-19 pandemic as a nurse. Though her own health has been a worry, she said that the Multi Organ Transplant Inpatient Unit has made some excellent accommodations for her to allow her to keep doing her job as safely as possible. For example, Reali only works with patients not being observed for COVID-19. 

This September, while still working at Toronto General Hospital as a nurse, Reali decided to pursue a Master of Nursing at the University of Toronto. She is now in the health systems leadership and administration stream. She decided to pursue a Master of Nursing because she wanted to have more autonomy in her practice. 

“I noticed that decisions were being made for me… as a nurse and… ultimately, frontline workers are impacted when changes upstream are made,” Reali said. “So I really wanted to be involved in making those changes.”

“What I am looking forward to is… [bringing] a perspective of being in the front line to health care management because at the end of the day, [frontline workers] know how these changes are going to impact the patients that you take care of and their families.”

Outside of nursing, Reali has volunteered for the Gutsy Walk each year since her diagnosis, which is the largest fundraising initiative in Canada for research and programs for Crohn’s and colitis. She has also been involved in other advocacy work for Crohn’s disease and colitis and has volunteered as a peer mentor both at McMaster and the University of Toronto.

Reali is passionate about her job, and she can empathize with patients because of her own experiences, especially with the feeling of wanting to be seen as a person, not just a patient. “These patients had stories before they got sick or people [who] they love and who they’re continuing to fight for,” Reali said. 

“I think it’s always important to be able to sit down and tell their story, to pass on their story, how they want it to be heard. So I think that it’s super important to be able to advocate in different ways for your patients, especially the nurse, but especially just in public.”