THE NEUROSURGEON opened his hands wide in exasperation to Linda Hagan and her 13-year-old son, Drew. 'What do you want me to do? Take this child into the operating theatre, take the top off his head and rearrange his brain?'

Three years later, Mrs Hagan remembers the shock and fury she felt at these words. Drew had suffered severe brain damage in a road accident when he was 11: he had virtually lost his memory and could not walk or write. The doctor was the last of a series of specialists who had told her that little could be done.

Now she manages a wry smile at the surgeon's brutal comment. Drew is 16 and is sitting beside us; he recently passed six GCSEs, two with a B grade. He can walk again and joins our conversation. He now lives in a caravan alongside his parents' house.

Had Mrs Hagan not persevered beyond the hopeless prognosis of numerous doctors, she wonders if she would ever have smiled again.

In desperation, she combed the telephone directory and contacted every organisation with the word 'brain' in its title. Finally she came across the Centre for Brain Injury and Rehabilitation (Bird), a charity based in Chester. It was the only place, says Mrs Hagan, that offered her son any kind of hope.

Drew had been hit by a van as he crossed a road. The impact threw him into the air and then, caught on the back of the vehicle, he was dragged along the road. The accident fractured his skull, smashed his pelvis and gave him severe friction burns. He lost all his memory. He could not even recall the friends who were signing his get-well cards.

When he returned to school he had no idea how to spell, write, do maths or draw. His personality also changed. Mrs Hagan says he became tempestuous. 'He started being very paranoid,' she says. 'His friends stopped contacting him.'

Drew's legs had become spastic and his sight and hearing were badly impaired. He would spend days at home in the dark, either curled into an anguished ball of pain or pulling out chunks of hair as he tried to free himself from the ferocious migraines rampaging inside his head.

Two years after the accident, Drew started to attend the Bird Centre. He was given a programme of intensive neurological exercises designed to help him relearn the skills he had lost. Within two weeks, says his mother, there was improvement. Within a year, he regained his hearing and memory, progressed from using crutches to walking and running perfectly and relearnt basic academic skills. He also calmed down; now, says his mother, he behaves like any other teenager.

David McGlown, a clinical and developmental psychologist who founded Bird, developed the theory behind these exercises. Children who are born brain-damaged retain infantile reflexes. In children able to develop normally, these disappear within the first year or two of life, enabling adult reflexes, necessary to learn basic skills, to emerge. He reasons that when a normal child or adult suffers brain damage, their reflexes may revert to the infantile.

His exercises are designed to inhibit infantile reflexes, so the victim can learn, or relearn, something as close to normal behaviour as possible. He or she is taught to perform repeatedly certain movements that would normally be under the control of adult reflexes. The hope is that as the brain receives the 'correct' messages from the body, the adult reflexes will be restored so normal function becomes automatic.

In one of the exercises that Drew was taught, arms, with hands facing upwards and thumbs outstretched, are moved upwards until the thumbs of both hands meet. At the same time the legs are opened wide on the floor and closed again as the arms are brought back to the side of the body. The exercise has an impact on the eye muscles and helps to improve balance and co-ordination.

In another, a small torch is held about eight inches from the left and right eyes and makes a figure of eight on both sides of the face. This forces the eyes to look in the same direction at the same time; it helped Drew regain his reading and writing skills. Mr McGlown says no one exercise can cause a change of reflex - it is the impact of the entire programme that achieves this.

The exercises take a maximum of 90 minutes a day and, once learnt, they can be performed at home with a parent - 'the best therapists money can't buy,' Mr McGlown says. This means a child has time to take up special education, occupational and speech therapy, deportment and physiotherapy.

The Bird Centre has just celebrated its 10th anniversary with the opening of a new annexe; this means it can now take three times as many patients as the 120 it has been treating annually. Patients, 85 per cent of whom are children, have problems including cerebral palsy, mental handicaps, epilepsy, brain damage from birth and brain injuries from viruses, accidents or strokes. Mr McGlown claims that his methods produce 'measurable improvement' in 80 per cent of cases, although the process can take years.

The centre, a registered charity, receives no government funding. It usually charges a moderate fee.

Bird's work can be confused with the conductive education developed by the Peto Institute in Hungary. Mr McGlown explains: 'Conductive education is teaching skills so that a child can perform a task in whatever way possible. Our goal is to help the child relearn a way of performing that action correctly.'

Mrs Hagan believes doctors and specialists should suggest Bird as an option to parents in her position. At worst, she points out, it cannot do harm and at best it provides 'the kind of miracle we have seen with Drew'. She says: 'The work I was taught to do with Drew gave me back the child I knew and it didn't seem that I would get that help any other way.'

Centre for Brain Injury Rehabilitation and Development, 131 Main Road, Broughton, Chester CH4 0NR (0244 532047).

(Photograph omitted)

Comments