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Toronto doctors changing lives in Sudbury

Physicians visit every three months to help patients do everything from open their hands to walk again
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Occupational therapist Ayako Sasaki, left, Dr. Chris Boulias and Dr. Farooq Ismail are seen Saturday at Health Sciences North. Darren MacDonald photo. 

Two Toronto doctors were in Sudbury recently, working to help a growing number of people who suffer complications from brain-related issues.

The treatment makes use of a neurotoxin similar to Botox, a treatment well known in Hollywood as a temporary wrinkle remover. But Dr. Farooq Ismail, of the West Park Healthcare Centre, said the treatments are anything but cosmetic.

Aimed at people with conditions such as cerebral palsy, brain injury, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury, the treatments can have dramatic effects on his patients.

"People can go from not walking to walking," Ismail said, between seeing patients at the outpatient clinic at Health Sciences North.

The neurotoxin can be extremely helpful to patients who involuntarily clench their fist or other limbs. They are injected in specific areas, temporarily blocking the message from the nerve to the limb.

"It inhibits that chemical from being released," said colleague Dr. Chris Boulias. “For example, by injecting the fingers, we allow the hand to open up. So the hand doesn't have any movement, but at least now they can open it."

While that may not sound like much, to someone whose hand is forced shut, the complications can be serious. Bacteria can grow in the palm, and fingernails can begin to claw into the skin. While the effect only lasts three months, that allows the doctors to refine the treatment to improve the benefits to the patients.

"It's a blessing and it's not a blessing," Boulias said. "It's a blessing because we can actually inject each individual finger separately to open up. The patient may have two fingers that are tighter than the other two.

"It's not a blessing, because people have to come back and get needles again."

Ismail and Boulias have been coming to HSN for the last three years, helping a growing roster of patients once every three months. What began as a half-day clinic is now two full days, when about 100 people come to see them.

"Anywhere from functionally independent and looking to be more independent, to completely dependent for all of what we call their self-care activities and daily living -- dressing, bathing, toileting -- where they come in with caregivers," Ismail said, when asked the typical profile of people he sees.

While they focused on people with cerebral palsy at first, more and more patients they are seeing have issues related to stroke. As our population ages, demand for their services will grow.

"We're not in the business of treating an arm or a leg, we are treating a person,” Boulias said. “There's always a goal -- what are we trying to achieve here? Improve walking? Is it hygiene?”

"For those who are dependent ... what we do is help to what we call decrease caregiver burden,” Ismail said. “We help whoever is providing them with help to do it more efficiently. For those who have a certain amount of independence, it's about making them more independent."

It's a satisfying thing to make such a dramatic impact on people's lives, the physicians said, making it worth the trip from their already busy Toronto clinic to come here. And the patients are satisfied too, they said, because no one ever cancels an appointment.

"We're very passionate about this treatment (because) we see the difference in the patients," Ismail said. "You don't have to leave Ontario to do rewarding work. You really don't."