August will mark seven years since Katherine Webb was rear-ended in a hit-and-run that left her with serious deficits.
Webb went to work the day after the crash, and the professional interior designer said she couldn’t understand her own drawings.
She would later learn she had suffered a concussion.
Her difficulties were significant: from lack of balance, to slurred speech to near-constant dizziness and nausea. Webb could no longer take a bus or a taxi safely, let alone drive a vehicle. She was dizzy and nauseous constantly. She regularly fell, banging and bruising herself.
“My cognition was too slow to stop myself,” Webb told the Now-Leader. “I fell like a sack of potatoes.”
She’d hit her head on ceiling fans, and get her hands stuck in the washing machine. She couldn’t look upward because she’d immediately become nauseous.
Her memory suffered, as did general cognition. She was often disoriented, forgetful and got lost in areas she knew. Her speech was dramatically impacted and at times, her speech would slow down to a stutter.
“My brain just wouldn’t offer my mouth the word,” said Webb, who now lives on Quadra Island.
This was her reality in an instant after the crash.
That is, Webb said, until she found the Surrey Neuroplasticity Clinic and was accepted into a five-week trial it was running using a “PoNS” device, intended to help the brain rewire itself by sending electricity through the tongue.
Webb said she previously underwent extensive neuro-physiotherapy. While gains were made, there was nothing near as significant as the progress she made almost instantly with the PoNS treatment – which she found thanks to her brother who learned of it in a documentary.
The treatment features a technology that combines stimulation of the tongue with physiotherapy to achieve functional improvements.
It was a tearful but miraculous first week, Webb recalled.
On her first Monday in the trial, she scored a 27 in an SOT - a sensory organization test - which measures balance.
“On day two, in the afternoon, my physiotherapist asked me to walk with my feet in tandem. And I did it. I’m like, whoa,” an excited Webb recalled.
The physiotherapist then Facetimed her husband, who works in the legislative building in Victoria.
“He’s in some minister’s office and he’s just bawling. Then we Facetimed my daughter, who knows my deficits, and she’s bawling. More people in the clinic came in and there were cheers all around. It was absolutely unbelievable. From that day, to this day, I’ve never looked back.”
Several weeks later, Webb said her balance score had spiked more than three-fold - from 27 to 87. And it’s held since.
Webb has set significant goals for herself: cognitively, to work on memory, numbers, attention and focus; physically, to be able to improve her balance and look upright.Today, she can walk without having to hold onto furniture, or people.
She recalled a fond moment in White Rock when she was able to look upward as she saw a paraglider over the water – without becoming nauseous.
“It was like a miracle.”
She can read again, and is working on speeding up her brain’s ability to read faster.
Webb credits the PoNS with helping her achieve this “permanent change in her brain.”
She just wrapped up a 14-week PoNS program a few weeks ago, and starts another round of therapy in August. “And I will keep doing that until I know that my pathways are far enough along that I can heal them on my own.” In a word, Webb said the therapy has been “life-changing” in a way no other therapy had been in the four years prior.
“It’s changed my life about as dramatically as the concussion itself, that took life as I knew it away. It didn’t take my life away, but as I knew it it did. I had to be very brave. We have to be very brave,” she said. “It has given me the opportunity to learn again. What was lost in a nano-second and has taken years to pick back up, it’s given me that opportunity.”
Webb said the world has been “waiting through history for something like this.”
“This has been worked on for about 40 years… before people really believed and understood neuroplasticity.”
Webb noted that 180,000 British Columbians currently have a brain injury.
“That’s just B.C.,” she said. “I feel like I’ve got this huge story hidden away somewhere in B.C., let alone Canada. People just don’t know. If I could’ve made myself well, trust me, I would have. And I couldn’t.”
The PoNS device is so new that once approved by Health Canada, it only crossed the border for medical use this past March, explained Sonia Brodie, who runs the Surrey Neuroplasticity Clinic across from Surrey Memorial Hospital.
(Surrey Neuroplasticity Clinic’s Sonia Brodie. Photo: Amy Reid)
Brodie told the Now-Leader the PoNS device was so dramatically effective it altered her career path.
“I was in clinical research and testing new devices, kind of a techie, so often you would be scraping statistics together, trying to see if you could prove that something worked. But working with this technology and seeing it just be blown out of the water… now I run a physiotherapy clinic with that technology and others.”
That data she refers to was a clinical trial involving 120 people with balance issues due to mild-moderate traumatic brain injury Across North America. Researchers set out to demonstrate the change the technology could make, aiming to achieve at least a 15-point improvement on a balance test.
“Normally, if you go through a standard rehab program you could see a chance in a balance test of about eight points,” Brodie explained. “That’s kind of the standard. If you get up to about 13 you’ve done really well…. But 70 per cent who came through the trial showed at least a 15-point change, on average it was closer to 30 points. These were people who were severely, chronically impaired in terms of balance and gait, and they were leaving close to a normal range.”
That’s why Brodie said Webb’s story is “not an exception, it was the norm.”
“This is so new. Nobody has done this before,” Brodie said. “So raising awareness among health-care practitioners, among people who have been told they’re not going to get any better and then around the funders as well, people who decide to fund this as a standard of care - that’ll be the long term goal so we can get more people through the door.”
So what exactly is this PoNS device? PoNs - which stands for Portable Neurmodulation Stimulator - is intended for use as a treatment of chronic balance deficit due to mild-to-moderate traumatic brain injury (mmTBI). The patient places a paddle-shaped mouthpiece on the tongue and wears a controller around the neck, and they feel a “mild sensation” while using it.
PoNs is “believed to promote neuroplasticity” through its “translingual stimulation of the trigeminal and facial nerves” which “initiates a cascade of neural activity, resulting in neuromodulation.”
Gold-plated electrodes are in the shape of the front one-third of the tongue to target cranial nerves five and seven specifically.
Brodie said for years, the medical community has used other kinds of brain stimulation – such as trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, directly through the skull, or functional electric stimulations if you’re stimulating someone’s arms or legs. But targeting the brain through the tongue, she said, is “something the world has never seen before and Canada’s the first country to offer this.”
Surrey Neuroplasticity Clinic, which opened in January, is one of the founding Canadian clinics to adopt the technology, and the only one in Western Canada.
For her part, Webb encourages others who are also suffering from affects of a brain injury to consider it.
“Be courageous. Keep climbing. You can learn again,” Webb said slowly, gathering her thoughts. “I know it takes courage to have a broken brain and shattered dreams.”
Visit snpc.tech for more information about the Surrey Neuroplasticity Clinic - which opened its doors in January - and other neuro-focused treatments and therapies available.
As Brodie explained, the clinic’s tagline is “a new approach to neuro-rehabilitaiton.”
“So really what we do is we get the latest and greatest new technologies that are available on the market and we are early adopters,” she said - the PoNS device being just one of those. “We’re customer number one in the country a lot of times. Finding something that’s scientifically valid and exciting and new, and can kind of spark up neuro-rehab. Often times people are just told we’ve done everything we can and this is your life now.”
An estimated 350,000 people in Canada live with chronic balance deficit after an mmTBI, and 13,000 new cases are reported anually, according to the creators of the PoNS device.