Physicians at Montreal’s Shriners and Children’s Hospitals are spreading the word around Canada of a specialized surgery for cerebral palsy patients that only a select few facilities are performing.

The disease, which is caused by abnormal brain development or injury, affects motor function and overly stiff muscles. It affects roughly 2.5 out of every 1,000 born every year in Canada.

“They can’t move joints in isolation and they end up walking on their tiptoes with their knees close together,” said Jean-Pierre Farmer, a neurosurgeon at Montreal’s Children’s Hospital.

Farmer is one of the few doctors in Canada who performs selective dorsal rhizotomy, or SDR, a procedure which can help alleviate some of the spastic symptoms of cerebral palsy. Farmer said the operation involves exposing the nerves in the spine and cutting some of the fibres that can cause the symptoms.

“We know that we won’t give them back the strength that they don’t have, from the connections they didn’t make from their brain,” he said. “But we can establish a better balance between the two so that they can be much more functional in terms of their gait.”

Currently, the surgery is only offered in Montreal and in Vancouver.

Among the patients who have travelled to Montreal for the operation is five-year-old Raquel Pilon-Guerra, who comes from Toronto, where the operation is not performed.

“We first heard from the pediatrician at nine months that she had cerebral palsy and it was devastating,” said her mother, Patricia Guerra.

Pilon-Guerra’s parents initially looked at going to the United States but upon discovering it was done in Montreal, they brought their daughter for an assessment. They were drawn by the medical expertise of Farmer’s team and the regular follow-ups performed at the Shriners.

Fortunately, the Ontario Health Board agreed to cover the cost.

“It’s touching, because we definitely feel that… this is going to change her life and we already see it,” said father Jean-Francois Pilon.