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Ray of hope for Barb


The notes were short and sparse, too sparse for the growing Facebook crowd waiting for word.

Armed with cameras, an iPad, iPhone and newly-acquired passports, Patrick Farrell boarded the Pilatus PC 12 air ambulance taking his wife to a U.S. clinic for treatment, Wednesday morning.

"I'm anxious," said the Barrie father on the tarmac at Lake Simcoe Regional Airport between Barrie and Orillia. "It's been a tough slug. But what's going to happen is going to happen."

Barb Farrell, a 46-year-old mother of a 10-year-old boy, has multiple sclerosis. She's been in Barrie's Royal Victoria Hospital for about six weeks, most of her functions rapidly diminishing.

She tilts her head slightly, but it's her eyes, beautifully made up, that seeks out the photographer documenting her precedent-setting trip.

The procedure she is seeking in the U.S. is vascular angioplasty. Angioplasty is typically used on heart patients to clear blockages. It is considered an unobtrusive and relatively inexpensive treatment. But it eludes Canadian patients with MS.

Barrie vascular surgeon Dr. Sandy McDonald treated six patients earlier this year. Farrell was booked to have it done through a radiologist, but two days before it was to happen, it was cancelled. No more angioplasty procedures for patients with MS went ahead.

Ontario considers it experimental and no Canadian province is permitting it. There is an argument that the 2,000 or so people worldwide who have undergone this procedure with success are seeing a placebo effect.

After a deafening three-hour silence, Farrell sent word via his Facebook page: "Barbie is out of the O.R. and OK. Her voice is quite clear and she is good."

And then: "She can wiggle her feet! It has been years since she could. She can move her right arm!"

That was more than Diana Gordon could handle.

"I'm overwhelmed," said the Barrie woman who is actively lobbying for change. "I couldn't lean over my keyboard because I was afraid I'd soak it. What I'm feeling is so incredible.

"Placebo my eye."

The Farrells' situation is capturing hearts across the Internet and at home in Barrie. Now the Farrells have private benefactors who are picking up the entire tab for the treatment. There's the cost of the transport ambulance from the hospital to the airport, the specially-equipped jet manned with two paramedics and two pilots. Then there's the procedure itself and the trip back.

"We've got some really good people here," said Farrell.

But there's a reality as well. Barb's condition is advanced. She has a feeding tube because she can't swallow. She's been bed-bound. The brief times she tried to utter a word, she has barely been audible. A do-not-resuscitate order, issued before the trip was even conceived, still stands. A month ago there was a family discussion about a transfer to Barrie's new hospice facility.

How Barb's body ultimately responds to the procedure remains to be seen. The hope for her family is that she will regain some of her functions.

But the hope for the MS community is that the world will see that this procedure could well be life saving.

"I am at a loss for words about how they can let somebody deteriorate to the point of death," said Paulette O'Leary, a Toronto neuroscientist with MS who underwent the procedure in the U.S. last month. "I'm devastated, as a health-care professional, that we cannot help people.

"I'm still beyond words on how they can deny someone who's going to die."

Like Gordon, who was "fixed" earlier this month, O'Leary is lobbying heavily for acceptance for the procedure for MS patients.

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