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Nanaimo man's miracle in the making after axe to the head in Afghanistan

From Canadian reserve army captain to patient and now researcher and research subject, Nanaimo’s Trevor Greene continues to command attention.

From Canadian reserve army captain to patient and now researcher and research subject, Nanaimo’s Trevor Greene continues to command attention.

Greene was on a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2006 when he stopped at a village to speak with a group of elders.

As a sign of respect, he removed his helmet and knelt down to speak. Suddenly, a teenager from behind struck Greene’s head with an axe, nearly cleaving his brain in two.

Defying expectations, Greene survived, eventually emerging from a coma. Barely able to move, he was told to expect about six months of recovery, at which point his physical abilities would plateau.

Instead, Greene and his wife, Debbie, have continued daily with two hours of exercise and therapy.

In a documented study, they are demonstrating the brain’s ability — if not exactly to heal itself — to recover function after a traumatic injury.

Greene, now 48, is able to stand on his own and continues to make progress toward walking on his own.

“Apart from my own recovery, I want to shake up what the conventional wisdom shows,” Greene said in a telephone interview from his Nanaimo home.

He is working on a book on climate change to be titled There is No Planet B, Promise and Peril in a Warming World. He is also enjoying being father to eight-year-old Grace and 13-month-old Noah.

It’s hard to believe he was once refused a spot in a rehabilitation centre because it wasn’t prepared for the level of nursing he required. Debbie was even told to put her husband in a care facility.

Greene is now the subject and shaper of a research project involving the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University and the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

His recovery is a demonstration of what doctors call “neuroplasticity.” It refers to the brain’s ability to recover function by rerouting electrical nerve signals along different neural pathways to complete a function that may have been lost to injury.

Neurons — cells that transmit electrical/chemical signals to initiate functions such as muscle contraction — cannot heal themselves or be regenerated. Once destroyed, they are gone for good,

But Greene’s recovery is proof of the ability of remaining neurons to establish new pathways for signals to travel. It’s as if a brain injury causes one neural bridge to collapse, but signals can detour and be sent along a different neural roadway to reach the same destination.

Prof. Ryan D’Arcy, a neuroscientist at SFU and Surrey Memorial Hospital, said this ability to reroute brain signals has been known for about two decades.

But D’Arcy, who has also been working with Greene, said what the former soldier is demonstrating is a previously little-appreciated potential for recovery by engaging the brain’s neuroplastic abilities.

“Many, many people who suffer traumatic brain injuries are still told to expect a little bit of recovery in the first six months to a year, maybe a little longer if they are lucky, and that will be it,” D’Arcy said this week.

“In Trevor’s case, he is well outside six years and he continues to show strong gains in his ability to recover and his brain’s ability to reorganize itself to recover function.”

Prof. Stephen Lindsay of the UVic department of psychology said much of the research was conducted with magnetic resonance imaging provided by VIHA.

The MRI machines provide specialized images of Greene’s brain while he performs certain functions such as raising his legs. Taken over time, the MRI images show various areas of Greene’s brain engaging or lighting up as his muscular ability improves.

“It’s still the motor cortex, the part of the brain we would expect to be involved with muscular movement,” Lindsay said.

“But there are parts of his cortex which are literally missing. So other regions of the cortex, which might have been involved with something like the upper limbs, are now driving movements of the lower limbs.”

Part of the MRI tests involved asking Greene, once a competitive rower, to visualize himself rowing. It’s an exercise Greene appears to enjoy.

Lindsay said he can’t see Greene rowing competitively again, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility of Greene propelling a shell again for leisure.

“I would not put any limits on his recovery,” he said.

“Trevor is an amazingly disciplined, intelligent and motivated man,” Lindsay said. “And he is married to an amazingly powerful, motivated and disciplined woman.”