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Life after

Serena Kelly has lived with severe PTSD for decades, having survived unspeakable abuse, multiple traumas and profound personal loss. She has tried every available form of treatment, but nothing has worked. Now, Serena is bravely participating in a clinical trial that could change
the way PTSD is treated.

At the age of twelve, Serena was sexually assaulted by a group of classmates as she walked home from school. In the nine years that followed, she was sexually assaulted an additional six times. After the last assault, at age 21, Serena then fell victim to an abusive relationship; when she found the courage to leave, decades of stalking and harassment followed.

In 2017 Serena received one more massive blow when she lost her youngest daughter in a horrific motorcycle collision, hundreds of kilometers away in another province. Every parent's worst nightmare came true for Serena, who had already been through so much. In the days and hours that followed her daughter's death, Serena was subjected to graphic images of the wreckage in media reports and via social media. Those images haunt her every day, playing over and over in her mind.

"Living with PTSD is like a never-ending nightmare," Serena says. "Intrusive thoughts and images haunt me while I'm sleeping and while I'm awake. It feels like there is danger lurking around every corner. I live in an almost persistent state of fear, anxiety, paranoia and hyper-vigilance."

Serena tried everything to cope with her trauma. After years of therapy dating back to her teens, targeted cognitive interventions and different medications to treat her PTSD, Serena was unable to find a treatment that would allow her to lead a more normal life.

Serena holds photos of her daughter Harley.

"Until now, nothing has been able to prevent triggers, flashbacks or intrusive thoughts from occurring, and nothing has helped to control my depression or the automatic responses triggered by the PTSD."

Serena Kelly

A Promising New Treatment

Then Serena learned about a new clinical trial at Sunnybrook testing deep brain stimulation (DBS) for treatment-resistant PTSD.

"I had heard about DBS as a treatment for Parkinson's disease when I was in college," Serena says. "When I heard that this technology was being used to try and treat depression, OCD, and potentially PTSD, I was both intrigued and excited."

DBS is a form of neuromodulation, which is a rapidly evolving field that focuses on the ability to influence malfunctioning brain circuitry. DBS uses implanted electrodes and external electrical stimulation to target abnormal activity in areas of the brain affected by PTSD — like a pacemaker for the brain.

With DBS, Sunnybrook scientists are using the latest advances in imaging and technology to develop an ultra-precise treatment for PTSD. Our goal is to better understand how brain stimulation impacts the circuits at the root of PTSD, to benefit Serena and the millions worldwide like her.

Serena and her husband Ron.

Blazing the Trail for Others

Serena's ultimate dream is that DBS will be the treatment that finally works for her. So far, results have been promising: 10 weeks after her treatment, Serena's reactions to triggers began to diminish and she has not experienced side effects since. She goes out more and was recently accepted to university, where she hopes to complete her degree in psychology.

By being a part of the trial, and by sharing her story and experience, Serena also wants to help raise awareness about PTSD and the research being done to find new treatments.

"I hope this study is successful, and that DBS can be used in the future to treat others like me, who have not found relief and healing by any other means. How amazing would that be to give people who have treatment-resistant PTSD their lives back!"

Serena Kelly
Rose Awards