Trevor Greene pauses when asked if he inspires others struggling to recover from traumatic brain injuries.
“Apparently I do,” says the former Army Reserve captain who was hit in the head with an axe in Afghanistan in 2006.
“When you’re up close to it like I am, you don’t see it but I hear constantly about people who are inspired by me,” he told the Now-Leader during a break in his physiotherapy at Surrey’s HealthTech Innovation HUB on Monday, a day that kicked off Brain Awareness Week across the globe.
“I hear of people being given up on by docs and when the docs give up on you, you give up on yourself, which is tragic,” he elaborated. “You just let yourself be in the wheelchair for the rest of your life.”
Trevor sure didn’t.
While he’s not yet able to walk on his own, he regularly walks with the help of an exoskeleton, modified to fit the six-foot-four Nanaimo resident.
His ultimate goal is to climb to the Everest base camp.
“It’ll come in steps, if you’ll forgive the pun,” he said with a chuckle.
“I think the next step is to play with my kids,” Trevor said, noting he has two children, Grace and Noah.
“Yeah. And to coach one of their teams.”
What else does he dream of doing?
“Take walks on the beach with my wife,” he replied, without skipping a beat. “And surf. And go hiking and biking.”
Trevor said it can be hard to stay motivated, at times, but his kids inspire him to push harder in therapy, day in and day out.
His tragic but inspiring journey began in 2006 during a meeting with tribal elders in Afghanistan.
“I took my helmet off and put my weapon down,” he recalled, “a sign of respect and trust. And a 16-year-old kid came up behind me, whipped an axe from under his robe and hit me in the head with it.
“The thing is… it was a centuries-old type of meeting that’s ceremonious.”
These meetings, Trevor continued, are supposed to be free of violence.
“It’s equivalent to pulling a gun out at church, what this kid did. It was a signal for a Taliban ambush in the village, which my platoon fought off, against the odds.”
His position in the military involved working with the local people in Afghanistan to ensure they have food, water and education.
“I was big on schools,” Trevor said, “because I knew what position women were in in that society…. At the meetings, I pressed the elders. I’d tell them I’d build them a school but only if they taught girls as well. You would’ve thought I was talking about educating dogs. I’ll never forget their laughter, like knee-slapping laughter.”
His recovery has been a long road and today, Trevor equates his rehabilitation to a job.
“General (Walter) Natynczyk, former head of the military, said he had a new mission for me when I got a medal in Ottawa, a sacrifice medal. He said, ‘Mr. Greene, your new mission is to walk.’
“And I took that to heart.”
Project Iron Soldier
Ryan D’Arcy laughs as he recalls screaming at the TV while watching a documentary about Trevor more than 10 years ago. D’Arcy said it struck a nerve when a specialist in the film said Trevor would never walk again.
“I freaked out and yelled at the TV. I did so again actually last night,” said D’Arcy, a renowned Surrey neuroscientist who founded both Innovation Boulevard and Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Neurotech Lab.
That documentary inspired D’Arcy to pick up the phone, and his conversation with Trevor’s wife Debbie led to a long series of research studies that were intended to highlight brain plasticity.
“We started first with a three-year study where I would, at the time, fly across the country, Trevor and Debbie would drive from Nanaimo to Victoria, we’d meet in MRI and we would measure Trevor’s gains as his brain was rewiring,” he recalled. “We did that for three years and completed the study.”
Fast forward nearly a decade and D’Arcy’s work with Trevor is showing the brain can rewire “far more than people are aware of,” the doctor said.
“And, to inspire lots of people to be motivated to push the boundaries just like Trevor. That’s always been the goal.”
D’Arcy likened Trevor’s work to “an elite athlete of rehabilitation to recover and rewire the brain to regain abilities.”
Phase two, explained D’Arcy, is Project Iron Soldier.
“We’re amping it up with all sorts of super-advanced research and rehabilitation technologies and then also measuring, as Trev continues to rewire his brain and break new boundaries down and crash forward,” he added.
An example of such technology is the exoskeleton, which traditionally have been used for spinal cord injuries. To use it for Trevor was considered an advancement in medical technology.
“We found a company in Israel and flew to Israel and checked them out and they had an exoskeleton that they said they could adapt,” D’Arcy said.
“We bought it, brought it back over to Nanaimo and started working with an exoskeleton and once a week, still, if you’re in a mall in Nanaimo you’ll see Trevor bionically walking up and down a mall with an exoskeleton.”
D’Arcy said the success of the journey thus far is a result of many things.
“It’s a combination of Trevor and Debbie’s drive. They’re very disciplined to rewire the brain,” he elaborated. “And experts like NeuroMotion and (physiotherapist) Pauline (Martin) and our teams here (in Surrey) who are helping to do the most state-of-the-art, advanced physio…. All of these technologies, and in addition, we’re using science to measure as Trevor rewires his brain.”
The couple make the trek from Nanaimo to Surrey quarterly for Trevor’s advanced treatment.
Trevor said watching the changes in brain – literally, watching – drives him forward.
“I could see where my brain was recovering,” Trevor said. “I could see where the plasticity happened. And Ryan told me in details what body parts they were, from this map of my brain.”
“It was sort of fun to know that something was happening in the brain,” wife Debbie chimed in.
“It gave you more excitement. Let’s keep changing it,” she added.
Is it truly possible for Trevor to reach his goal of climbing the Everest base camp without the exoskeleton?
“We don’t know,” replied D’Arcy.
“But we’re not going to say no.”
Veteran’s Village underway
Trevor’s story, it turns out, was the inspiration for the Veteran’s Village project.
“To be honest, that project, I’m really not sure if it would’ve transpired if it wasn’t for Trevor,” said Rowena Rizzotti, Vice President of Healthcare and Innovations for Lark Group, the Surrey-based developer behind the project.
“It was out of the work Trevor was doing with Dr. D’Arcy that the Whalley Legion Branch used poppy funds, I believe it was $120,000 they raised, to purchase the exoskeleton for him.”
When Trevor was being fitted for his exoskeleton, Rizzotti invited the team to use the innovation centre, and that led to her being introduced to Inga Kruse, who at the time was executive director of the B.C. and Yukon command of the Royal Canadian Legion.
“During a conversation with her, I started to talk about how the legions are very much located on some of the most ideal properties in communities,” said Rizzotti. “The days they were built, back in the ’40s and ’50s, they’re right in the centre of communities, and now communities have built around them. It would be really sad to see legions not have a strong future and continue to be that profile to remind us what veterans have contributed, and serve the rest of the community.”
That’s when the idea for a major redevelopment of the Whalley legion was born. Today, that conversation has become a plan that is being fast-tracked by the City of Surrey.
The $60-million Veterans Village will be constructed on the existing Whalley Legion Branch 229 site and include a “centre of excellence,” where veterans, soldiers and emergency first-responders will be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health-related concerns. The village will also include a research and rehabilitation centre focusing on robotics and devices to help amputees, exoskeletons, and neuroscience as well as temporary housings for patients and their families, a healing garden and new legion lounge.
A team behind the Veteran’s Village project updated Surrey council of their plans during a council meeting last Monday.
Rizzotti said the work is getting “very, very close” to completion.
“We’ve got all of our operators secured, we’ve got our affordable housing secured, and we’re working with all the legions and entities that will be working within Veteran’s Village,” she revealed. “We’re also getting excited to find a temporary location for legion so they can operate during construction.”
Rizzotti said shovels are expected to be in the ground this summer.
“It’s one of the most remarkable projects I’ve ever been involved with,” she elaborated. “We want to inspire the community. We’re really excited that this is going to start the revitalization of Whalley in such a meaningful way.
“I keep reminding Trevor — you are our iron soldier.”
With files from Tom Zytaruk