Tim Cant lay wide awake on the operating room table as a surgeon inserted a wire into the back of his neck.
The pain, he says, was comparable to having a tooth pulled out without anesthetic.
But he hadn’t travelled from Whitehorse to Bangalore, India, only to turn away now.
The operation would last two hours. During this time the surgeon would use the wire to thread a tiny balloon into the veins that run between Cant’s brain and heart. The balloon would be inflated to prop up collapsed veins and remove blockages.
He was kept awake throughout the surgery because a mistake could result in brain damage. The surgeon wanted Cant to be able to describe any unexpected pains.
The 51-year-old Yukoner has multiple sclerosis. The operation he underwent earlier this month in India, known as the “Liberation Treatment,” is touted as something close to a cure for the degenerative disease.
But the treatment, pioneered by Italian researcher Paolo Zamboni, hasn’t yet met the standards of Canadian medical science. That’s why the operation is unavailable here, and Cant made the journey to India.
Zamboni’s study has yet to be independently replicated, and his small sample of patients included no control group to distinguish whether patients’ improvements resulted from the surgery, or simply from positive expectations, otherwise known as the placebo effect.
But the decision was a no-brainer for Cant. For the past three years, the avid outdoorsman has slowly lost control over his body, so that he now has trouble hobbling up a set of stairs. He always felt tired. And a pall of gloom set over his usually cheerful disposition.
Cant didn’t have the luxury of time. He called the operation his “last hope.”
And he returned from India as a believer. “I believe it’s been a tremendous success,” he said. “I have so much hope for recovery.
“I’ve gotta tell you, it’s one of the most wonderful feelings someone with MS can feel.”
Zamboni’s operation upends the longstanding medical belief that MS is an autoimmune disease, in which the body’s defenses begin to attack nerve endings. Instead, Zamboni postulates the disease is a result of poor blood drainage from the brain.
Backed-up blood in the brain results in iron deposits, which produce the disease’s symptoms, according to this theory. The problem is fixed with the wire and balloon that was inserted into Cant’s neck. The technique, called an angioplasty, is routinely used to unplug veins and arteries during heart surgeries in Canada.
The Liberation Treatment won’t reverse the more serious damage already caused by MS. But, according to Zamboni’s findings, it may halt the spread of the disease.
Before leaving Canada, Cant received a Doppler ultrasound in Vancouver to look at the veins in his neck. “They said your veins are good,” he said.
But, when he was reinspected in India, “sure enough there were blockages.”
Cant says he began to regain control over his right foot, which had been rendered more or less immobile by the disease, even as he lay on the operating table.
Two days later, he felt pain in his kidneys. He suspects it’s from his body cleaning up the pent-up blood backlog.
His circulation seems to have improved. He no longer needs a heating pad to keep his legs warm in bed.
“I feel a lot more energy, a lot more alert,” he said. “I don’t feel lethargic.
“My wife says she sees new light in my skin. I’m less pale.”
And the change in his spirits is just as profound. “I was carrying so much weight,” said Cant. “Now, I have free-flowing blood from my head to my heart, and I feel so much better.”
Cant may require follow-up surgeries. Sometime a metal tube needs to be inserted into a collapsed vein. And he expects to have another Doppler ultrasound in a few months. He doesn’t yet know where he will have this work done.
Cant continues to be frustrated with the Canadian government’s reluctance to fund Liberation Treatments in the country. “I know a lot of people with MS, and I know the anxiety of wanting to have this operation done,” he said.
Angioplasties, he notes, are done “every day in Canada for heart patients. But, unfortunately, for patients with MS, it’s something that can’t be done.”
But he’s heartened by the help he received from Yukoners who raised funds for his trip. “They raised more than $20,000. It alleviated a lot of stress for our family. I’m not coming home with a lot of debt,” he said.
“It restored a lot of faith I have in humanity.”
Contact John Thompson at