May 10, 2024

St. Joe’s Shortens Wait Times for rTMS – A Treatment for Treatment-Resistant Depression 

St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton is cutting wait times in half for an innovative new treatment for major depressive disorder thanks to funds raised at its Foundation’s gala. On November 2, 2023, donations from hundreds of gala guests helped the Hospital raise more than $350,000 – all of it earmarked to help purchase two new repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) units. 

rTMS is a safe, non-invasive, Health Canada-approved treatment for major depressive disorder. People who suffer from this kind of depression often find it to be so severe and persistent that anti-depressants and talk-based therapies simply don’t provide relief.  

rTMS nurse, Brenda, positions the magnetic coil over the head of a fellow colleague Caitlin to demonstrate how the unit creates an electromagnetic field to treat major depressive disorder.

Heather* (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) was the first patient to undergo her rTMS treatment program with one of the new devices funded by the gala.  

“I’ve lived with depression for most of my life. It started when I was a young child – but at that time, depression in children wasn’t acknowledged nor well understood. Over the past three decades, I’ve tried just about everything – from medications to therapies, natural interventions to coping strategies – all of them with what I would call moderate success. But nothing was able to pull me from the grip of my depression for very long,” says Heather. 

Heather had all but given up on finding relief when her doctor came back from a conference talking about a promising new treatment that used magnetic fields to treat treatment-resistant depression.  

Dr. Gary Hasey, a psychiatrist and researcher at St. Joe’s who founded Canada’s first rTMS clinic at the Hospital in 1997 explains. “The rTMS device creates an electromagnetic field, similar to that used during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, to boost the activity of neurons in the frontal cortex, an area of the brain known to be involved in regulating mood. In patients with depression, this area of the brain isn’t working as well as it should be. By restoring more normal functioning to the region, we’re often able to treat depression in a very effective way.” 

It’s estimated that 40 to 60 percent of people living with major depressive disorder will respond to rTMS, and even though it’s a Health Canada-approved treatment for depression, rTMS isn’t yet funded by OHIP. It’s only thanks to funding received from the Hospital, research grants, and philanthropic gifts and events like the St. Joe’s gala, that St. Joe’s has been able to provide rTMS treatments on a compassionate, cost-free basis to clients while evaluating its efficacy through clinical research. 

After being referred to the rTMS clinic at St. Joe’s in the summer of 2023, Heather came under the care of Dr. Dante Duarte, a psychiatrist at St. Joe’s and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University.  

“With the newer rTMS units funded through the gala, an rTMS treatment that used to take 20 to 30 minutes to deliver, can now be done in just five minutes,” says Dr. Duarte. “This allows clients to come in for treatments between errands, over the lunch hour – whenever is most convenient for them.”  

Heather was prescribed two treatments of a few minutes each per day for 10 days. “At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect – and of course, I was a little nervous – it’s my brain after all,” she says with a smile. “But Dr. Duarte and my nurses, Jackie and Brenda, always gave me so much of their time and attention. They answered my questions, showed me the device and how it worked. They walked me through why my particular kind of depression was likely to respond well to this new treatment. I spoke with my sister who’s a neurologist, too, and she confirmed that rTMS was a safe, effective treatment that’s growing in popularity.” 

Demand for this innovative treatment has increased dramatically over the past few years, causing wait times to reach four to six months – which is a long time when individuals are living with severe depression. That’s why purchasing two new rTMS units became a key priority for St. Joe’s Foundation – the charitable arm of the Hospital that works with the community to raise funds for things that provincial operating dollars cannot or do not cover. With the two newer units, and the shorter duration of treatments, Drs. Hasey and Duarte have been able to double the number of patients they treat in a single day, cutting wait times in half. 

As for Heather, she says she feels like she won the lottery by gaining access to rTMS treatment at St. Joe’s. “Depression is so prevalent, and I know there are so many more people, just like me, who just aren’t able to find hope and relief. But not everyone knows about rTMS yet. And while I’m nervous about the stigma that is still too often tied to mental illness, I knew I had to do what I could to spread the word. rTMS has given me hope for a brighter future. It’s easier for me to get out of bed in the mornings now. I feel…lighter. And the benefits of rTMS are still emerging day by day. I’m incredibly grateful to Dr. Duarte and my rTMS nurses for all of their support during my treatment. But even more so, I’m grateful to the donors who made this therapy available to me – and to others.” 

St. Joseph’s Healthcare Foundation is grateful to all of the capital equipment auction donors at the 2023 Gala: SAIL AWAY, a Nautical Night in Support of St. Joe’s.

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