Community comes together to help Malvern C.I. teacher Karyn Bugelli adjust to life in wheelchair after tumour removed from spinal cord

Friends and neighbours gathered at the Beach home of Karyn Bugelli and Joe Dunning recently to help with renovation work to make the home accessible for Karyn. Photo: Submitted.


Beach resident and beloved Malvern Collegiate Institute teacher and guidance counsellor Karyn Bugelli is now cancer-free, and her family is working on re-modelling their home to be more accessible with the help of friends and the community.

Bugelli noticed nagging back pain in September 2020 that she assumed was from not moving around enough because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and tried to push through the pain with the help of chiropractors, massage, and acupuncture.

The pain got worse until February 2021 and her husband Joe Dunning took her to the emergency department.

“Essentially my vertebrae broke, like my back broke, and I just got up in the morning and I couldn’t get up the stairs from the basement,” said Bugelli.

Doctors at Micheal Garron Hospital were able to see that Bugelli had a tumour on her T-12 vertebrae, and referred her to Toronto Western where she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of cancer rarely found in adults.

Following an initial surgery at Western, Bugelli went to Princess Margaret Hospital to receive chemotherapy treatments to shrink her tumour, but developed a serious infection after her third round.

After this, doctors decided not to give her the last two rounds of chemo and to have surgeons go in to see the progress on her tumour.

“They were hoping it would shrink it out of my spinal cord, but that didn’t happen, so the only way to get the tumour out was to cut the spinal cord. That was obviously tough news, but it was life or a limb, basically. Life was more important, so they decided to do the surgery,” she said.

The 22-hour surgery went well, but the shocks weren’t over. In the following weeks, she developed an infection that required another surgery, then contracted COVID-19, and doctors found a peculiar spot on her pelvis which they thought could be cancerous.

“They said if it came back this fast it’s palliative…I told my family. Through an error, it turned out it was the bone graft they’d done through the initial surgery. So for six days I thought I was dying, but it turns out it was just the bone graft so that’s amazing news,” she said.

Bugelli is now cancer-free and in rehabilitation to learn how to live using a wheelchair.

In the meantime, Dunning is working on re-modelling their bungalow in the Beach to be accessible for Bugelli.

“They gave us the thumbs up that they had gotten all the cancer, so now we’re on the next part where Karyn has to figure out life as a paraplegic,” said Dunning.

Laura Norris, a friend and teacher at Malvern C.I., created a GoFundMe page to help raise funds for the extensive renovations needed to make Bugelli’s home comfortable and wheelchair accessible.

“The GoFundMe was set up by two teachers I work with, I’m so touched by it…I couldn’t even believe they would think to do that and just the outpouring (of support) of people in the community: my neighbours, parents from Malvern…I’m seeing all these names of students…writing kind words,” said Bugelli.

Bugelli said that she’s grateful for the kindness and generosity of the community and Malvern C.I. to her, Dunning, and their two children.

“It’s pretty amazing and humbling. Even before the GoFundMe, the teachers set up a meal drop-off…I don’t know if I can ever deserve all that (support) but it’s certainly very helpful,” said Bugelli.

Dunning said that he’s found a company that can install a small elevator in their home, and that the main floor will be renovated into a larger bedroom and bathroom.

“There will be an elevator that can go down to the basement so she can tuck the kids in at night and help them with homework…I think it will work fine. We’re simple people and we don’t need a ton of space, we just need enough space for us all to get around, interact, and stay together. It’s the most important thing,” he said.

Bugelli’s goals are to return to her family and to work as a teacher and guidance counsellor at Malvern C.I. as soon as she can.

“It’ll be different but I think I can do it. I’m determined but I’m not patient,” she said.

Principal of Malvern C.I., Sandy Kaskens, said Bugelli is an inspiration to the school and community.

“I think it really put things in perspective for me, because here we all are struggling through COVID as individuals, as a community, as an educational system…And then something like this happens. For her to have such tenacity, positivity, and bravery throughout the whole thing is really inspiring.”

Unfortunately, Malvern C.I. is not an accessible building as it stands now, and students with accessibility needs are often transferred to another secondary school. The school does have a service elevator from the parking lot to the first floor, but it’s not suitable for regular use.

“We have to make this work. I can’t allow Karyn to be accommodated by the board sending her to an accessible school. This is her community, this is where she has devoted her entire career. This is where she’s made such a huge difference, she’s a leader at our school,” said Kaskens.

Kaskens has plans to make the first floor of the school accessible by installing a ramp at the front entrance, a lift to the first floor, a new desk, and widening Bugelli’s door. However, she said that a bigger plan and discussion will be around the whole school becoming accessible fairly quickly.

Bugelli will be able to work and stay in the guidance office located on the first floor, but won’t have access to the rest of the building unless significant changes are made.

“At least I can stay in guidance but I won’t be able to go into classrooms and talk to the kids because I won’t be able to get up there…I think it’s terrible that in this day in age a high school wouldn’t be accessible to any student or teacher…I think it’s an important topic…that a publicly funded school isn’t accessible,” said Bugelli.

To learn more about Bugelli’s story and the renovations required for her and Dunning’s home, please visit the GoFundMe page at\

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