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Kim Furlong is making the world a steadier place

Vestibular rehabilitation physiotherapist and Aurum Award 2024 winner Kim Furlong (BScPT’88, MSc’00) works to restore confidence, independence, and hope in her patients at the Newfoundland Balance & Dizziness Centre.
Physiotherapist Kim Furlong is standing in a clinic leaning on a piece of treatment equipment.

Posted: May 24, 2024

By: Emily MacKinnon

Kim Furlong (BScPT’88, MSc’00) has spent 36 years honing her unique passion for treating conditions that affect the inner-ear balance sensor through physiotherapy.

Her knowledge, skill, and drive led her to establish Newfoundland and Labrador’s first dedicated vestibular rehabilitation (VR) centre, helping individuals grappling with dizziness, vertigo and imbalance. Furlong’s work goes beyond treating dizziness conditions: she gives people hope and helps restore the physical, functional, and social well-being of those living with disabilities.

Kim Furlong portrait for Aurum Awards video Watch the video for 2024 Aurum Award recipient, Kim Furlong.

A driving force

Due to her aptitude for the sciences and math (she won a University of Waterloo mathematics competition in grade 10), Furlong assumed she’d become a math teacher. When she discovered physiotherapy, a blend of scientific knowledge and hands-on manual techniques, she knew she had found her true purpose.

Her interest in balance began at Dalhousie’s physiotherapy research lab in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Health. “Our professor taught us how to test balance using a force plate,” she recalls. “I loved the objective measures of center of pressure, ground reaction forces, and sway velocity.” Furlong pursued a master’s degree, completing research on balance testing and predictors of falls in people with Parkinson’s Disease.

Furlong's foray into specialized care began early in her career. With a thirst for knowledge and skills, she became a clinical lead in neurological rehabilitation and a physiotherapy student clinical educator.

Gold standard of care

After earning her graduate degree, Furlong moved to Maine, where she spent a decade leading rehab services for an outpatient rehab hospital and developing a community-based balance and falls program. “Working in Maine gave me exposure to the gold standard of care for a person experiencing dizziness and falls,” she says. 

While in the US, Furlong obtained vestibular certification from Emory University, becoming one of few physiotherapists in Canada to hold such certification. “Assessing a dizzy patient is like unravelling a mystery because dizziness is a symptom of so many different conditions,” says Furlong. True to her mathematician roots, she loves a complex challenge.

Camp No Limits

One such challenge for Furlong was a 10-year-old child she calls Tom, whom she met at Camp No Limits in Maine, a groundbreaking “therapy camp” where Furlong taught hundreds of children with prosthetic limbs how to bike, run, and participate in outdoor activities. Tom was missing both arms below the shoulder and both legs below the hips. Furlong remembers him mostly observing, not interacting or participating.

One day, Tom asked if Furlong could teach him to ride a bike. So, she and her team lifted him onto an adapted bike and tried ways to secure his residual limbs onto the crank arms of the bike using padding and straps. Furlong helped Tom feel the movement pattern of turning the crankshaft to get the chain to move the wheel. But he struggled. He just didn’t have the strength.

But then...the bike moved. First one foot, then five.

And then Tom was off, racing down the path.

“He was a speed demon. He had found his voice. His personality just erupted with the freedom the cycle had given him. His ounce of hope turned into a dream come true.” She pauses and smiles.  “And I realized all one needs sometimes is a little hope.”

Benchmarking dizziness rehab

When Furlong returned to Newfoundland, she was the only vestibular rehabilitation physiotherapist on the island. She realized there was a need for these services, and so she opened her own practice. “I wanted to provide the best possible care to people living in Newfoundland with hearing, balance, and dizziness disorders,” Furlong says. She spent two years scouting the perfect location for the NL Balance & Dizziness Centre — a healthcare hub that provides interdisciplinary, evidence-based care.

Furlong is assisting a woman standing on a stability cushion wearing a harness in a physiotherapy clinic.

In classic Furlong fashion, every detail was meticulously planned. Furlong purchased a state-of-the-art 75-foot round ceiling track to hook up to wearable fall-prevention harnesses. A patient wears the harness as they walk, reducing their fear of falling and allowing them to focus on physiotherapy. The bikes have special accessibility features like swivel seats and adjustable pedals and handlebars. The lights are dimmable. There are no moving screens or loud noises, no patterns on walls or flooring.

Everything, down to the unscented detergent used to wash the towels that go around patients’ necks, is a studied choice. “We have to consider all aspects of our clinic environment since sensory overstimulation can be symptom-provoking for our patients,” Furlong explains. 

Continuing the legacy of care

Twenty years after her encounter with Tom at Camp No Limits in Maine, Furlong founded iBIKECAMP, a non-profit organization in St. John’s that provides inclusive cycling programs for adults and children with physical and cognitive challenges. Through iBIKECAMP, people learn to cycle and gain skills in an activity that builds coordination, confidence, fitness and opportunities to play. “Cultivating hope is key to helping those with a disability achieve their goals,” Furlong says.

And that’s what it all comes back to. Whether in her professional endeavors or community service, Furlong inspires hope in many. She demonstrates that making a difference to those living with a functional or physical impairment or diversity takes commitment.

It takes a dedicated, meticulous, passionate, and engaged approach.

It takes someone like Kim Furlong.

A group of people stand in 2 rows with those in the front kneeling. There is a tent behind them and one person is on an adaptive bike.