ABI Wellness is making big differences in the lives of people that have suffered traumatic brain injuries.
Cloverdale’s Mark Watson runs ABI Wellness and they’ve been been offering their program to individuals who were at the end of their regular therapy routine and, in some cases, had lost hope for any type of recovery.
Mark credits the “wonderful team” at ABI for all their success. He says hundreds of people have gone through ABI’s cognitive therapy program since they opened several years ago.
One success story involves 28-year-old Clayton Pelletier.
Clayton suffered a severe brain injury after being involved in a motorcycle accident in Harrison when he was 21.
He was in the hospital for months recovering from his physical injuries; he then went to a care home where he tried to recover from his brain trauma.
“I’m still working on the rebuild after my accident,” Clayton says, his sentences arriving a little slower than one would expect, but clear and precise. He has a light in his eyes and a big smile as he talks.
I’m having a coffee with Clayton and mom Janis Swaine in Cloverdale. Clayton drove down to meet. He has to go to work after the interview. He speaks softly and thoughtfully, sometimes pausing to get the words right. He laughs a lot and finds humour in everything.
Janis explains Clayton basically started from scratch after his accident.
“He had to relearn everything.”
Clayton, an Aldergrove resident, was born in Langley. He moved to Agassiz in his teens and went to highschool there. He was going to the University of the Fraser Valley when he crashed his motorcycle in 2014.
He says he doesn’t remember his accident and he’s thankful for that.
“I spent months in the ICU and then more time living in rehab centres.”
When he left his final rehabilitation facility to go home, he left in a wheelchair, still unable to walk.
Janis remembers a dark time for her when Clayton was non-responsive and vegetative.
“He would just sit there and stare and drool,” she says as tears fill the corners of her eyes. “I remember the doctor telling me at the time that Clayton may recover, or he may stay the same way. They just didn’t know and they had no way of predicting what his recovery would be like.”
Clayton spent three months in Royal Columbian Hospital, then he went to Laurel Place, near Surrey Memorial Hospital for another two months. Janis attributes Clayton’s early recovery to Laurel Place’s location.
“Because it was (in Surrey) and not somewhere in Vancouver, he had lots of visitors,” she says. “His friends came, his family came, he got to see his daughter (Alessandra). Everyone took turns. Some were with him every single day. If he’d have been in Vancouver that part of it wouldn’t have happened. Every single day someone was there with him and I know that helped him.”
Alessandra was in instrumental in helping Clayton with his early recovery, remembers Janis.
“He said she was his reason. She was one of the most important parts of his motivation.”
He participated in both physical and cognitive recovery programs at Laurel Place. It was there he learned to talk and swallow again.
“He was on a special diet. Everything had to be thickened, even coffee and water,” Janis explains. “When your body’s forgotten how to swallow, everything goes too fast. He needed time for his brain to go, ‘Oh, I need to swallow.’ Otherwise it would go into his lungs and he would aspirate.”
After Laurel Place, Clayton spent two more months in a different facility before he was able to go home.
At about eight months post-recovery, doctors told Janis that Clayton’s recovery was probably as good as it was going to get. But she refused to accept that.
At about one year post-recovery, Janis found out about Mark’s program at ABI Wellness. She contacted Mark to see if ABI could help Clayton. But Janis was told they needed to wait another year until Clayton’s energy level and attention span improved.
“He needed endurance,” remembers Janis. “They said they needed him to be there for a whole day. He wouldn’t have been able to handle that at one-year post, he would have only been able to handle an hour or two and then he would have been exhausted.”
Clayton says he didn’t notice a difference right away, but after a while changes became apparent.
“It gradually brought clarity,” he recalls. “Little things, like memory, aided me in function. It just smoothed everything out. Smoothed out my thought process.”
He worked his body and his brain in the program.
“Seems strange, but you start classes in the morning by doing cardio exercise,” says Clayton. “Cardio helps to produce brain-derived neurotrophic factors.” (Those BDNF proteins help with neuroplastic changes in the brain related to learning and memory.)
From there he would do cognitive rehab exercises for the rest of the day. In the classroom, he was surrounded by people who also understood what he was going through. Clayton says it was comforting and inspiring to be with people who were facing similar challenges.
“The staff know the science behind it, but your classmates can relate, they understand you. That’s monumental in the recovery phase.”
Clayton rolled into ABI Wellness in a wheelchair and walked out a year and half later. He now drives a car, has a job, and lives almost completely on his own. He still lives in his mom’s basement suite as he still needs some support and guidance, especially with his daughter at times. But their next goal is complete independence.
To narrow it down, he thinks the biggest single difference for him was the way the program improved his memory. It’s allowed him to live a normal life.
Janis says it vastly improved Clayton’s ability to manage the most basic things, such as waiting in line.
“Early on in his recovery, it was difficult to cope,” she explains. “If he had to wait for things, like going to a washroom, or waiting in a dentist office, he would get confused and lose it. Just getting from point A to point B without getting super frustrated was difficult. Things we take for granted were very difficult for him.
“It was healthy for me too,” adds Janis. “Everyone had a connection to someone who knew what everyone else was going through.”
Clayton went from only being able to be engaged for an hour or two, to putting in a full day’s work.
Janis says the standard medical thinking around traumatic brain injury needs to change. ABI’s method is not mainstream yet and not many doctors know about it. As such, nothing was covered by medical and Janis had to fundraise to get Clayton the care he needed. Friends, family, and even clients at her salon helped drive Clayton to Mark’s program.
Janis says no one along the way ever gave her hope Clayton would improve, until she met Mark.
“As soon as I met Mark, he said, ‘No, no, no. There’s things we can do.’ And that gave me hope.”
“I don’t know where we’d be without Mark, not only because of the improvement, but also the support that we got from the other people who are in the program. We didn’t have anyone. There was no one I knew that was in the same situation as us.
“They helped both of us.”
Clayton’s progress still amazes Mark.
“He’s an example of what’s possible when you have the opportunity to engage in something that can change your life.”
Mark says Clayton’s recovery story has even inspired people to open brain injury clinics that use ABI’s cognitive recovery method.
“Clayton’s goal was to drive again,” says Mark. “But he couldn’t at the time because his cognitive capacities were too low, and because there was no access to neuroplastic cognitive treatment.”
Mark says watching Clayton go through the program also inspired him. He took that inspiration and pushed the medical system harder to include cognitive treatments.
“So many people need help,” says Mark. “We just need to change the thinking around cognitive care.”
Mark adds Clayton’s recovery was not solitary. It’s also a testament to Janis’s resilience.
“He’s such a great example of what’s possible when you get access to the right kind of care,” Mark says. “Him and his mom are a great reminder to me about how the right kind of cognitive care can change lives.
“That’s just him.”
“I’m not sure where we’d be without Mark’s program,” adds Janis. “Certainly not here. Because there wasn’t anything else.”