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Beyond pain: Rehab program empowers kids to be kids again

Emma Walker began experiencing chronic and debilitating migraines and headaches at 15. Her condition progressed, and normal, day-to-day activities became harder and harder to do. She was unable to attend school, and she stopped figure skating. Emma continued to suffer, often in a dark room where she would retreat with ice packs to ease the pain. It wasn't until she was referred to the Alberta Children's Hospital that there was a break in the clouds.

She was enrolled in the Intensive Pain Rehabilitation Program (IPRP) at the Vi Riddell Children’s Pain & Rehabilitation Centre. This donor-funded program is designed to not necessarily cure pain, but rather empower kids like Emma with tools and knowledge to better manage their pain so it’s not debilitating. At the same time, the program helps family members like Emma’s mom, Kathy, better understand what their children are dealing with, and teaches them support techniques to help their children through difficult times.


Emma attended the IPRP five days a week for three weeks. Occupational therapists and psychologists worked with Emma to get her up and moving, both physically and mentally. Physiotherapists helped her rebuild muscle tone lost to inactivity. In art therapy sessions, Emma found a release valve for the emotional and mental pressures that often manifest as a result of prolonged physical pain.

The suite of therapies offered through IPRP, combined with a revamped regime of medication, transformed Emma’s ability to function. She regained the control that had been taken by pain. Emma also learned to conquer some of the fears that had been holding her back in life. For example, as part of her therapy, Emma would go to the hospital pool. Because she is incredibly sensitive to smell, Emma previously avoided swimming in chlorinated water, frightened it would trigger another excruciating headache. Through IPRP, Emma learned to move beyond the fear. Rather than recoil from life, Emma began to embrace it again.

“The people, the atmosphere and this program, it’s not only the kindest, warmest and most welcoming experience I’ve ever known, it is also the most transformative. The compassion, encouragement and support I was shown every day not only made my personal battles easier to fight, but also opened my eyes to the difference that team work, resilience and a sense of self worth can make in a life,” she says.

Emma no longer lies in the dark all day. She visits with her friends, she’s taken up running and the treadmill, and goes about the world like a normal teen unburdened by the crippling fear of pain. Despite missing several months of classes, Emma has graduated high school … with honours.

“Don’t mean to brag, but it’s a big deal for me,” she says, smiling.

Emma is now taking courses online that she will need for college. Her experiences with the Alberta Children’s Hospital have inspired her to pursue a career in therapy. Her goal? Helping other kids here at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

“Now that I’ve had that experience, it kind of seems like the most important place for me to be.”


Science fiction? Unlocking a child’s potential using brain-computer interfaces is now science fact


 Dr._Kirton_squareDr. Adam Kirton
Brain-Computer Interface Researcher, Alberta Children's Hospital


Children living with conditions such as a stroke, spinal cord injury or cerebral palsy can suffer from severe limitations in their mobility and capacity to communicate. Fully aware and capable but unable to walk, these children are trapped in their bodies. Treatment options are limited.

Dr. Adam Kirton started the Calgary Pediatric Stroke Program at the Alberta Children’s Hospital to provide state-of-the-art diagnosis, treatment and support to children with stroke-related brain injuries and give them the opportunity to participate in leading clinical research initiatives. A new direction in his research aims to help these most severely disabled children better interact with the world, in ways they’ve never done before through brain-computer interface (BCI) technology.

Dr. Kirton and his team are among only a few centres in the world conducting BCI research for children. These systems have the potential to engage children many of whom otherwise cannot communicate in learning and play. The software and technology can allow children to operate various devices simply by thought via a non-invasive electroencephalogram (EEG) that captures electrical activity of the brain. Modern BCI systems can recognize changes in thought patterns and transmit them to control devices such as a computer cursor, communication system or video game. The overall goal is to find new ways for children with severely limited movement and speech but intact intellect to express themselves, interact with their environment, and gain independence.

– Words courtesy of Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute

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