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SMALL DOSES / REPORTS / LEGAL AID, DYSLEXIC WOES, PAIN RELIEF

SickKids program adds lawyers to family support teams

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ptaylor@globeandmail.com

Sometimes it takes more than the assistance of doctors, nurses and social workers to help parents cope with the challenges of caring for an extremely sick child.

So, in a unique program - believed to be the first of its kind in Canada - Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children is now adding lawyers to its family support team.

"Some solutions need the expertise of a lawyer," said Ted McNeill, SickKids' director of social work.

For instance, a family of an asthmatic child may require legal help to prod a landlord into removing mould from a building. Or a parent may be unjustly fired after taking time away from work to care for an ailing child.

Dr. McNeill noted a host of non-medical problems, requiring expert legal knowledge to address, can impede a family's ability to focus on the health of their children.

"But not everyone can afford a lawyer," he said. "This service is really targeted at those families who face financial challenges and who might otherwise not be able to access a lawyer."

The hospital has joined forces with Pro Bono Law Ontario and two local law firms - McMillan as well as Torkin Manes Barristers and Solicitors - to provide free legal care to those in need.

One lawyer has already set up shop at SickKids. Cases requiring very specific legal training - such as immigration and tax issues - can be referred to other lawyers.

In many respects, the program springs from a field of study known as the "determinants of health," which has shown that poverty, discrimination and related stressors can have a profound influence on a person's physical well-being.

"If we only understand health in the narrow terms of the biology of disease, we are going to miss addressing those very important determinants that shape our health," said Dr. McNeill.

Added woes for dyslexics

Dyslexic children have a hard enough time learning to read and write, but some of them suffer from hearing problems, too.

A new brain study has revealed that these kids have difficulty hearing someone's voice when there is a lot of background noise. In other words, they may not be able to concentrate on what a teacher is saying amid the normal din of the classroom. And this auditory shortcoming is likely to make learning even more challenging.

"There are many reasons why a child might have difficulty reading," said the lead researcher, Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Illinois.

She stressed that not everyone with dyslexia, a learning disorder affecting 5 to 10 per cent of schoolchildren, also has trouble processing sound. But her study, published in the journal Neuron, demonstrated that a special brain test could help pinpoint kids with this added handicap.

After attaching electrodes to a child's scalp, researchers can analysis electrical brain impulses to determine if a child is having difficulty distinguishing different sounds in a noisy environment, she said.

Once they are identified, the kids can get specialized care, she added. That care could be as simple as seating the child at the front of the class or using wireless technology to enhance the teacher's voice for the individual student. There are also auditory training programs that teach kids to focus on certain sounds.

"For some kids, hearing is a problem," Dr. Kraus said. "But it's certainly an identifiable factor that can be addressed both in terms of diagnosis and treatment."

Easing pain

Are you about to face a painful medical procedure? Focusing on a pleasing picture could help ease the discomfort, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Volunteers were shown a series of images meant to evoke either pleasant (such as water skiing), unpleasant (a threatening bear) or neutral (a book) emotions. During the experiment, the participants were subjected to mild electric shocks while undergoing an MRI brain scan.

"We found that seeing unpleasant pictures elicited stronger pain in subjects getting shocks than looking at pleasant pictures," said Mathieu Roy, who conducted the research at the University of Montreal as part of his PhD thesis.

Dr. Roy, who is now a researcher at Columbia University in New York, noted that his study builds on earlier work that suggests our emotions can affect our perception of pain. And he believes various mood altering techniques, when used with traditional pain-relieving treatments, could make certain procedures more tolerable for patients. And listening to soothing music or inhaling pleasant aromas would likely be just as effective as looking at happy pictures, he speculated.

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