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From surf spots to inner-ear physio gear, get to know Andrew Mills

We met for a morning Zoom chat with Andrew Mills to learn about travelling as a physiotherapist, surfing with toddlers, and why the vestibular system is so important.

Do you have a favourite Victoria restaurant? Where’s your favourite takeout spot?

I’m really into 5th Street Bar & Grill right now, they do a mean chicken tender.

What’s your ideal morning look like?

The bar is pretty low, since I have 3 young kids [laughs]. My ideal would be to sleep in til 7am, have a coffee, and not mediate any arguments before 8am.

Did you grow up in Victoria?

I did! I’m from here, I moved away for school but I’ve been back about 15 years now. I loved my time living in Montreal… but it’s almost too fun a place to live, if that makes sense? [laughs] It’s a super cool place to live, but coming back felt so great. I like the smallness of Victoria. I can ride my bike anywhere I want to go in ten or fifteen minutes, tons of beaches and ocean access spots. 

Are you a big cyclist?

No, I’m just a commuter! I have a lil’ electric.

So how did you come to be a physiotherapist?

I went to Queen’s for my physio Masters, and UVic for undergrad before that. I was a really active kid and had seen physios before, so I kind of knew from the start that’s what I wanted to go into. I enjoyed science generally, took a lot of anatomy classes, and it all came together in physio. Then vestibular therapy was a cool spin-off from that.

What’s vestibular therapy, and how did you get into it?

So the vestibular system is the inner ear. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong there that physios can help assess and also fix. It can be for balance issues and dizziness, vertigo, nausea, that sort of thing, but also migraines, concussions, and vision issues. For example, not being able to focus your eyes while moving your head, noticing you’re off balance in the dark, or motion sickness can all be signs of an issue with the vestibular system.

It was blind luck honestly, I had a practicum that focussed on VT. I had no idea what it was going in, but I really liked it. I dabbled in other things, but then really pursued vestibular therapy.

What’s your favourite thing about providing vestibular therapy?

The clients, for sure. Education and exercises are a big part of treatment, as with all physio, but there are also some quick fixes we can do that can make a big difference. You feel like a bit of a hero; they come in with these symptoms then all of a sudden ‘boom!’ it’s gone. People don’t know it exists, that this is something physio can help treat. 

Neurologists and ENTs, doctors who are ear, nose, and throat specialists, have been using physio techniques on vestibular issues for a while, and then physiotherapists caught onto it.

I’ve treated clients from 7 year olds to 100 year olds. It’s such a wide swath of the population that’s affected, I hope more people can find out about it and get some relief.

Do you have a favourite piece of physio gear? 

I’ll show you. [grabs something off screen] These ICS Impulse Goggles! They’re pretty geeky looking but they’re fantastic tools for diagnosing vestibular issues. They basically have tiny cameras so I can look at their eyes in the dark. The brain sends cues to the eyes based on information from the inner ear, about where it thinks the head is. If there are deviations in eye movements, it’s probably a vestibular issue.

Fascinating! So at Arbutus, folks are into all different sports. What do you like to do to keep active?

I love ice hockey, love to run when I have time and generally work out. But surfing is my passion if I’ve got one.

What’s your favourite surf spot? On the island, or generally?

Sombrio overall, it’s fantastic. I loved surfing in Australia and New Zealand. When my wife and I got married in 2014, we backpacked for a year as our honeymoon. We ended up living in a van in New Zealand, and our favourite place to stay and surf was Fitzroy beach. We loved it so much we named our dog Fitzroy!

Mexico, California, and Nova Scotia were great surf spots too – it’s good everywhere honestly.

What do you love about surfing?

It’s hard to describe – it’s so quiet, and involves athleticism, timing, planning, then the thrill when it all comes together.

I also love sharing it with my kids. My oldest is 4, she’s surfed with me a few times, and hopefully we’ll get our 3-year-old out on the board with me this summer. Just tiny waves with them sitting onboard with me. Our youngest is 1, so he’s not gonna be out there for a little while.

I read in your bio that you spent some time in Iqaluit, what was that like?

That was pre-kids! [laughs] I used to do locums in Iqaluit, for about two months at a time. I’d mostly just hang out and do physio, but it was wild in the summertime. It’d be 2 or 3am, and bright sunshine. My brother’s a physician, he did some trips up and told me about it. I contacted them and it was a no brainer, to get to spend time in such a unique place.

I saw you also have a Master’s of Philosophy, how did that come about?

Physiotherapy is so direct and applied, I wanted something different. I’ve always been interested in philosophy, so I took some courses and then turned it into a Master’s. I mostly did it for my own interest, to have something separate from work, but I think it has affected my practice a bit. It’s helped me to articulate my thoughts more clearly, describe things to patients in different ways, using different metaphors.

What would you say is most challenging in your work?

Every issue is challenging in its own way, but the biggest is really that people don’t know about vestibular therapy. I think that improves over time, as more people try it and see positive results. Showing really works best. People come in doubting, and then leave the office a little less dizzy. It’s satisfying to convert people!

Thank you!