Walkabout: Jeff Walker November 28th, 2016

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Leaside’s ‘brain-whisperer’ expanding clinic on Laird

Treats concussions from a surprising variety of causes (it's not all about hockey)

Jeff Walker Walkabout column logo
The first thing to strike you in talking with Dorothy Hillmann is the passion for her work.

I wasn’t about to clunk my head on the nearest lamppost just see what she could do for my resulting concussion, but the thought ran through my mind.

Hillmann runs the concussions clinic with the nifty brain logo outside, at 51 Laird Drive, a few doors south of the giant Telus building. She carved a couple of hours out of her busy schedule to answer my questions and to disabuse me of some misconceptions.

“Everyone’s talking about assessment — no one’s talking about treatment,” Hillmann laments. Assessment-wise, MRI or CAT scans don’t reveal concussion in nine of 10 cases in which a concussion will later be definitively diagnosed, she notes. A very pricey spectrograph may do better, but usually not nearly as well as a skilled therapist with the proper training.

Hillmann is a neurological physiotherapist. She obtained her B.Sc. in physiotherapy at McGill University in 1976, and since then has accumulated a wall of diplomas in various treatment methodologies including acupuncture, cranial-sacral therapy, and Sylva-styled meditation. (This constant upgrading and broadening of her educational qualifications has cost her $300,000 over the years, she says, but was well worth it.) Most importantly, she’s had more than three decades of experience in treating concussions and other traumas. Her services are non-OHIP, but may be covered in some extended-coverage health-insurance plans.

Once the test results are in, remarks Hillmann, “I’m the ‘Now what?’”

Sports-medicine clinics won’t handle concussions that aren’t sport-induced, and according to Hillmann, they tend to have a “one size fits all” approach to what are highly-individualized situations. If I had lingering concussion symptoms that were confounding my doctor, Hillmann’s is the type of place to top my list for treatment. She’s certainly no newbie.

“I practise best-practice traditional therapeutic techniques,” she says. “I make bridges from theory to practise.”

The aim is “eliminating or reducing the barriers to recovery.” And while something of a skeptic when research backing is thin, she is anything but dismissive of un-conventional therapies. “I’m a pioneer,” she states unabashedly.

She offered me with an armload of testimonials and recited one: “You fixed my brain. You put me back to work. Before that, I was done in.”

She laughs that she has become known by some as “the brain whisperer.”

Concussions can happen in the most seemingly innocuous circumstances. Hillmann has even treated one that resulted from  knocked heads during a close encounter of the romantic kind.

Of course, no one is going to outlaw kissing because of the minute probability of dangerously colliding skulls. Bungee jumping is another matter entirely, proof that rattling your brain against the sides of your skull requires no actual impact.

dscn3113You might think that the clinic’s location a stone’s throw from the Leaside arenas implies a focus on hockey-sustained concussions. Rather, the focus is on concussions from all sports, from seniors (and kids) taking falls, from car accidents and so forth.

Sports-wise, I learned from Hillmann that lacrosse is making an enormous comeback from relative obscurity all over North America, and generating a plethora of concussions — from getting wacked on the head with an errant stick, and from tumbles.

The alarming thing is that lacrosse leagues are making lacrosse helmets mandatory, but not for the girls, as if they were less vulnerable. They can be even more vulnerable in recovery; Hillmann takes into account research indicating that where girls are in their menstrual cycle affects their symptoms and recovery time.

Cheerleading, trampolining, figure skating…. you name the activity, and there are concussions. Short attention-span boys are funnelled into sports to dissipate their excess energy, but that short attention span itself makes them more accident prone. In general, kids who have sustained concussions need help in sticking to a gradual recovery schedule. Jump the gun, and you can be back to square one. Even getting back on a computer prematurely can be a real setback.

Then there are bicycle-riding concussions because, while the child was wearing his helmet properly, supposed role-model Dad or Mum was wearing no helmet at all.

There are even concussions from being hauled to the pavement by a rambunctious big dog on the end of a leash.

Generally speaking, people aren’t going to stop the activities that incur some small risk of concussion, because they’d have to become recluses. Hillmann herself worried about her sons getting injured in soccer; so she became the coach and made sure everyone played safely.

She also steered her other kids away from “nutty coaches” with the winning-is-everything mentality. Sadly, women who have been battered in relationships sometimes sustain concussions.

Hillmann points out that many of her clients are at their wit’s end in seeking relief for concussion-related symptoms. She cautions, “There’s a lot of wrong information on the Internet.”

Sufferers are vulnerable because they’re desperate, and Hillmann is no fan of many of the concussion clinics that have opened in recent years. Few clinic directors have the array of degrees and diplomas, and the decades of devotion to research and treatment that Hillmann has behind her. And with five children of her own, she is no stranger to the mishaps of childhood and adolescence.

Children, with their still-developing brains, are a special challenge when it comes to recovery from concussion, and Hillmann has long devoted much of her practise to that challenge. As for some long-untreated symptoms of concussions, not only can they impair academic and job performance, they can lead to alcohol and substance abuse, which only worsen one’s condition.

The clinic as-is, sharing the building mainly with Iron Gate Wine Management, includes a conference room for symposia as well the main consulting office with two beds for patients and, naturally, a light-dimmer for patients still in a hyper-sensitive state. On the same ground floor, a very large rectangular room is slated for transformation into a multi-bed treatment centre. Hillman’s assistants for this expanded function are now in training.

It would seem that Leaside is poised to become a mecca for the advanced treatment of concussions.