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St. Michael's Hospital is on a mission to stop multiple sclerosis in its tracks
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The two-floor, 30,000 sq. ft. BARLO MS Centre will be a world-leading hub for MS research and care. ARTISTIC RENDERINGS OF THE BARLO MS CENTRE, HARIRI PONTARINI ARCHITECTS

St. Michael's Hospital is on a mission to stop multiple sclerosis in its tracks

If the sun was shining, why was the room getting dimmer? That’s what Martin thought one November morning in his downtown Toronto office. Martin (his name has been changed to protect privacy) was reviewing his advertising pitch to a new client when the page he was looking at suddenly blurred. The bright room he was in became darker. No matter how much Martin rubbed or blinked his eye, nothing changed. The blurriness remained for a week, and sometimes he’d see double. After two months of testing, Martin found himself in front of a neurologist who gently explained the diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.

Martin’s case is not unusual. In Canada, one in 340 people has MS, an autoimmune disease that affects nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord and eyes. Every eight hours, another person is diagnosed.

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Canada has the highest rate of MS in the world. This country is also home to one of the busiest MS centres in North America, at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. St. Michael’s has been caring for people with MS since 1981, and now treats 7,000 patients, including Martin.

Next year, the hospital will open the BARLO MS Centre, designed to be a leading hub for MS research and care.

The new centre will occupy 30,000 sq. ft. in St. Michael’s flagship Peter Gilgan Patient Care Tower. At the helm is neurologist Dr. Xavier Montalban, who came to St. Michael’s two years ago from Barcelona, Spain, where he ran the renowned MS Centre of Catalonia.

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With an integrated team of specialists, patients will receive the therapy and support they need to deal with symptoms and adjust to life with MS. ARTISTIC RENDERINGS OF THE BARLO MS CENTRE, HARIRI PONTARINI ARCHITECTS

“Our goal in creating the BARLO MS Centre is to stop the disease,” says Dr. Montalban. “We will give our patients the best possible care from the moment they are diagnosed in our world’s best centre of excellence.”

Scientists don’t know what triggers MS. The disease attacks the nerve’s protective insulating cover, a fatty material called myelin. When myelin is damaged or inflamed, nerve signals are distorted or interrupted.

Symptoms like Martin’s vision problems are common. There are many others. Legs might feel weak, wobbly or unbearably stiff. Most people with MS talk about pins and needles in their limbs. Some patients might lose their ability to walk. Others experience exhaustion, or have trouble with memory and attention. World MS Day, May 30, raises awareness of the disease, its symptoms and their impact on quality of life.

Women are three times more likely to be diagnosed than men, and the disease is more common in those with a northern European background. While MS generally strikes in the prime of life – ages 30-35 – young children and older adults can get it too. No one is immune.

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For now, Martin’s symptoms are being kept at bay. He and other patients know that MS requires a comprehensive response.

Under Dr. Montalban’s leadership, the BARLO MS Centre plans to do things differently. Most MS clinics are not equipped to deal with all of the challenges that MS patients normally encounter. Patients may require a range of care, from counselling to physiotherapy. That often happens at multiple sites, and patients can wait a long time just for a referral.

The BARLO MS Centre will offer one-stop care. Patients won’t just get a neurologist, but also a team of nurses, social workers, neuropsychologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists – all in a single location.

The centre will also feature an infusion clinic, so that patients can receive more of the new treatments that have been developed in the last decade, many of which are delivered intravenously.

“Early diagnosis means we can start people on promising new treatments,” says Dr. Montalban, “and give them hope that they can live fulfilling and productive lives.”

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BARLO MS Centre at a Glance

The name BARLO MS Centre is a mashup, honouring the two families who collectively donated $20 million to get it started: John and Jocelyn Barford, and Jon and Nancy Love. The two-floor centre is integrated in every way, from its personnel to its amenities. Here’s some of what the space features.

Gym: Hospitals don’t usually have gyms, but exercise can help with MS symptoms. With specialized workouts on site, patients can improve strength and bladder and bowel function, and reduce fatigue and depression.

Independent Living Lab: MS patients may need to learn new ways of doing things. Here, staff teach them how to adapt the rooms in their homes, with things like entrance ramps for wheelchairs, adjustable table heights, easy-to-grasp cupboard handles, and voice-command lights and appliances. Occupational therapists also advise on low-tech fixes, such as wider forks for patients struggling with fine motor skills, or risers for chairs that make it easier to sit down.

Medical Infusion Centre: Some patients with aggressive or advanced MS need infusion treatments to alleviate symptoms. That can mean being hooked up to an IV line for six to eight hours at a stretch, maybe for days at a time. The infusion room is designed for comfort, with cozy chairs and couches, room for families and private seating for those who’d rather sit quietly by themselves.

Group Physiotherapy Studio: With MS, legs, arms and joints may no longer respond, and balance can be challenging. The studio offers a soft place to land – literally. Cushioned floors make for comfortable group yoga, tai chi, aerobics and exercise ball sessions.

Cognitive Lab: MS can affect thinking and behaviour. In this lab, neuropsychiatrists and neuropsychologists assess patients’ attention and information-processing speed. The team can then create individualized cognitive therapy plans. With the help of computers, patients learn to improve their working memory and language skills.

Speech Therapy Room: Speech therapists work with MS patients to strengthen their speech and swallowing muscles, and re-learn how to speak clearly.

Social Work Room: To deal with their new reality, some people with MS need advice around things like how to get disability payments, manage personal finances, find patient support groups or explain changes to their children. Social workers pinpoint the issue, offer practical solutions and connect patients with resources. When someone needs more guidance, social worker staff can bring in other experts, including neuropsychiatrists and occupational therapists.

Auditorium: This is where professors, fellows and scientists from around the world gather to learn, train and make clinical decisions with other hospitals.

Patient Lobby: The curved stairway at the centre of the lobby is a site for physical therapy and a podium for education. It’s also more than a physical connection between two floors. The majestic stairway is a symbol of the integrated model of care inside the BARLO MS Centre.

This content was produced by an advertiser. The Globe and Mail was not involved in its creation.

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