On March 4, 2006, Canadian Forces officer, Capt Trevor Greene was nearly killed by an axe wielding teenager in the tiny village of Shinkay, a collection of mud huts in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan.
He was there with his platoon in his role as a Civilian-Military Co-operation (CIMIC) officer and their goal was to determine where military resources would make the most impact. The platoon had already visited two nearby villages that day, and the soldiers were relaxed, taking tea with village elders, with their helmets removed as a mark of respect.
Suddenly, a 16 year old drew a rusty axe from under his robes and plunged it into Greene’s head. As he was struggling to remove it from Greene’s skull, to strike again, he was shot and killed - due to the lightning reflexes of another soldier.
This was the start of an ambush and under heavy fire, Greene was evacuated by helicopter and later transferred to a military hospital in Germany where he received emergency brain surgery. Still in a coma, he was later flown to Vancouver General Hospital. He was never expected to emerge from his coma as the axe had penetrated an inch into his motor cortex, the part of the brain responsible for movement and the ability to speak. He had left some of his brain tissue in the dust in Afghanistan and his medical team considered it a miracle that he had even survived but were pessimistic about his ever making any significant improvement.
Since then, he has written a book, married his fiancee, and helped trial the amazing technology of a robotic exoskeleton, which helps wheelchair bound patients to walk again. This is a testament to his spirit, the determination of his wife Debbie Lepore and the incredible ability of the brain to change - which for four hundred years was believed to be impossible by leading neuroscientists.
The brain had been mapped out by early neuroscientists who had shown that specific areas of the brain controlled specific functions. So if your speech area was damaged, you would not be able to speak, or if the area on the right side of the brain that controlled movement was damaged, you would have weakness or paralysis on the left side of the body. The brain was seen to be machine-like with specific pre-determined functions and unchangeable areas relating to specific functions of the body.
The other long-held belief amongst doctors and neuroscientists, was that if any repair of brain circuits or improvements in function were possible, the biggest gains would be in the first few months after the injury. The feeling was, that around the six month mark, no further improvements in brain function or abilities were likely to occur in the brain damaged patient.
Trevor Greene’s amazing progress is a wonderful example of how the brain actually can change and actually repair itself. This property is now referred to as “neuroplasticity” - with “neuro” referring to the neurons which are the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems, and “plastic” meaning “changeable, malleable and modifiable”.