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“In 2013, I had been diagnosed with dementia, and I could tell I was disappearing. I couldn’t even remember how to make myself coffee—or tell you how I take that cup of coffee.”
Debbie Wilson, Ph.D., is animated, cheerful, and relentlessly optimistic—not what you might expect from a woman who has spent nearly three decades battling seizures, repeated concussions, and complex medical complications from an accident that ended her career and took away her independence.
“I’ve experienced so much new and unexpected healing that even scientists don’t know about yet,” she says. “I just want to give hope to others.”
Very few people are in the position Debbie is when it comes to offering firsthand accounts of what medical cannabis can achieve when every other medical option has failed.
Twenty-eight years ago, when she 35 years old, raising three children (including one in diapers) and working as a felony probation and parole officer, Debbie had just finished her second year of law school. The family was out celebrating that accomplishment when the unthinkable happened. A teenager driving a full-sized pickup truck backed up over her slight 5’1” frame in a parking lot.
Debbie’s neck was broken in multiple places. She lost several teeth at the roots. And unbeknownst to even the physicians at the emergency room where she was treated immediately afterwards, she sustained a severe enclosed traumatic brain injury (TBI). She was treated and released that evening, but within a day or two, it became clear something was very wrong.
The symptoms appeared almost immediately. Short-term memory loss and personality changes tipped off her family and colleagues, one of whom thought perhaps she’d suffered a “nervous breakdown.” A neurologist administered a two-day, eight-hour neuropsychological evaluation at an inpatient facility.
“I failed everything,” Debbie says. “He came back and told me, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news: You haven’t had a nervous breakdown. The bad news: You have permanent brain damage.”
She was hospitalized for a full month.
Debbie had to learn to walk, talk, and write again. None of those skills returned immediately. “In fact,” she says, “I actually didn’t recover the ability to write a complete sentence until six years ago—after I finally started taking cannabis.”
Seizures, Uncontrolled Epilepsy and Repeat Concussions
During Debbie’s initial month-long hospitalization after the accident, nurses and physicians noted a complication in her chart: nighttime seizures that occurred only while she was sleeping. “I guess,” she says, “They hoped they’d stay there and never appear during my waking hours.”
But they did.
Debbie eventually developed full-blown epilepsy, including what most people think of when they hear the term—tonic-clonic seizures, which cause a person to lose consciousness and fall to the ground. Repeated seizures compounded the damage from the initial accident, because every time she fell, concussions were a danger.
After a particularly bad fall and blow to the head affected Debbie’s temporal lobe, she developed life-threatening partial-complex seizures that had the potential to shut down her heart and lungs. She was not a candidate for seizure-control surgery because too many areas of her brain were affected, so she became the first person in the United States to use a certified seizure-alert dog in 1996—an animal she credits with saving her life more than once. She was also a fierce and early advocate for broadening the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act to apply to all service animals—not just “seeing eye dogs”—as a result of this experience.
“I Tried and Failed at Every Option—Nobody Could Help Me”
The physical, emotional, and psychological effects of the accident, seizures, concussions, and complications mounted and compounded through the years and physicians prescribed a mountain of pharmaceuticals to try to bring them under control. At one point, Debbie was on 44 prescription medications, from antidepressants to anti-anxiety medications to massive doses of benzodiazepines, some in the doses that were so high she ended up in the emergency room due to drug toxicity—and still, her seizures were uncontrolled. She was still having up to four per week.
The toll on the rest of her body was immense. Her colon stopped working due to the overload of medications and had to be removed. She lost her gall bladder. Her remaining teeth had to be removed. Much of her gum tissue was removed. “They asked me ‘What medications are you on?’ when they saw all the tissue damage in my mouth,” Debbie says.
But what led Debbie to cannabis wasn’t her seizures. It was something far more prosaic.
“A lot of people with head injuries get post-traumatic headaches,” Debbie says, “And I was one of them. I hadn’t had a day without a headache in twenty-one years. I woke up with a headache and went to bed with a headache. I had been on a waiting list for the biggest and best headache clinic in the nation. They weren’t willing to try anything I hadn’t already tried and failed on. So, in 2010, I found myself riding home, alone, on a train, from Chicago to southern Illinois. And I swear, this is my truth: my teenager had told me a few years back that he thought cannabis would help my headaches. But I’d always had the responsibility not only for my kids, but also for the other kids who hung around my house. I felt like I had to wait ‘my turn.’
“I’ve worked in law enforcement my whole life; I’ve studied law; the law meant everything to me. But on that train ride home, my Lord and Savior said to me, ‘Debbie, that’s man’s law, not My Law. There was no doubt in my mind that I’d had a divine voice guide me. The next morning, I told my son I needed him to get me some cannabis.”
She got immediate headache relief. And she says if that’s all she’d ever gotten from medical marijuana, she’d be perfectly happy with it.
But the benefits didn’t stop there.
From Four Seizures per Week to Four per Year
One of the options Debbie had explored during her years battling epileptic seizures was a vagal nerve stimulator—an implantable device that disrupts the abnormal electrical signals in the brain to short-circuit seizures while they are happening. This option, an invasive and risky procedure which requires literally cutting into the brain, reduces the occurrence of seizures by only about 30 percent.
On cannabis, in the first year, Debbie’s grand mal (tonic-clonic) seizures were reduced by nearly 1000 percent, from four per week to four in a full year. But once she got access to medical cannabis with CBD through a dispensary in Michigan, her son, who is also her caretaker, noticed immediate control of her partial-complex seizures as well.
“Mom,” he said, “We have to move to Oregon.” Illinois is not a compassionate use state for medical cannabis.
By this time, Debbie had been diagnosed with dementia and her practitioner had put her on THCA in the form of raw cannabis, the size of a grain of rice, taken twice daily, and THC at night only (because too much THC can trigger grand mal seizures in epilepsy patients).
“It’s different for everybody,” Debbie says. “My practitioner told me I needed the THCA for brain healing.” And brain healing is what she has experienced. Within 72 hours of starting raw cannabis, she says, “I was night and day, cognitively. “And my son and daughter-in-law are witnesses.”
Objective test results have verified these perceptions.
- After a year on THCA, a neuropsychological retest showed an unprecedented improvement in Debbie’s cognitive functioning. Her initial test results showed impairment on a massive scale—she scored in the lowest percentile on all five domains of the test. The retest placed her in the normal range on three of the five domains not affected by her dementia, and although the dementia remains, she has improved in those two domains as well.
- Debbie also recently had an MRI with normal results—the first normal brain MRI since her accident 28 years ago
- An electroencephalograph returned similar results—the first normal EEG test post-accident
And those 44 medications Debbie used to take before cannabis?
Today she’s down to one—a blood pressure medication—and has titrated her dosage of her very last benzodiazepine from 16 milligrams per day down to one milligram. (Her physicians have advised her that after so many years, there is no benefit to going off that medication completely, and the risks outweigh the benefits.)
Diabetes, Neuropathy, and Fine Motor Skills Improvements
“Two years ago, I went to see my physician. She said to me, ‘Debbie, your blood test doesn’t make sense at all, because it doesn’t match your diagnoses.” At first, she didn’t understand what her doctor was saying. But today it’s become clearer as the effects of raw cannabis on her clinical symptoms and disease markers persist.
- Diabetes in full control: For the past three years, since beginning a full medical cannabis regimen, Debbie, who was diagnosed diabetic twelve years ago, has shown no further clinical indications of the disease. Her blood tests have shown A1c levels (which are the best indicator of long-term blood sugar levels) within normal range; she does not follow a special diet, and takes no other medications for diabetes.
- Feeling returns to hands: Due to either the original brain injury or the neck injury, Debbie was left without the ability to feel pain in her hands, leading to injuries like cuts and burns that left her unable to work in the kitchen. After a year of raw cannabis, she recently regained feeling in both hands, a quarter-century after the original injury. (Neuropathy and neuropathic pain are also common long-term complications of diabetes.)
- Fine motor skills recovery: Along with restored feeling, after taking raw cannabis, Debbie has also regained the ability to use her hands to do things many people take for granted—picking up coins, fastening and unfastening her own buttons and bra clasps, and zipping her own jackets and those of her grandchildren.
“I just wanted headache control,” says Debbie. “All this other neuro healing? That’s new and unexpected. I want people to know about it—especially medical professionals.”
“When I went to my own neurologist after being seizure-free for four years, she didn’t even give me a smile, and I was flabbergasted. That’s when I knew we have to work much harder to get the word out. We have to educate medical professionals about what cannabis can do.”
For her part in this effort, Debbie administers a Facebook community, Neurology and Cannabinoids, with more than 90,000 followers, where she posts and distributes news and research about medical cannabis.
After a wide-ranging conversation, there was just one last question for Debbie: How do you take your coffee?
“You know what, honey?” she laughed, without a moment’s hesitation. “I take it with a spoon and a half of sugar and a little bit of milk!”