Horizon’s SJRH Oncology Department home to the first Paxman machines in Atlantic Canada, a technology to help prevent hair loss during chemotherapy treatment

A Horizon husband and wife duo are supporting cancer patients in the Saint John area with new technology that hits close to home.

Dr. Ashley O’Brien, anesthesiologist at Horizon’s Saint John Regional Hospital (SJRH) and his wife Mari O’Brien, registered nurse in the Operating Room, generously donated a Paxman machine to the hospital’s Oncology Department after Mari had successfully used the device during her cancer treatment. Then, they went a step further to secure a brand new one to benefit even more patients. 

The Paxman machine is used for cooling the scalp during chemotherapy, which helps prevent hair loss, one of the most dreaded and feared side effects for many chemotherapy patients.

Mari was diagnosed with breast cancer in summer 2020.

“The surgeon got us in contact with someone who had done scalp cooling in a ‘manual’ sort of way, involving a series of caps that were chilled with dry ice,” explained Dr. O’Brien.

It was a very labour-intensive process, he added, and with Mari’s chemotherapy starting soon, it didn’t seem like it was going to be possible to get everything organized in time.

After some research, Dr. O’Brien learned about the Paxman machine and found a Canadian distributor who previously travelled across the country with the machine, charging patients to use the machine. She had recently gone out of business due to the COVID-19 pandemic and offered to sell them a machine.

“I discussed it with my wife that night, and it was quite obvious that not going bald was extremely important to her,” he said. 

They purchased the machine, which was shipped to Halifax in time for her husband to pick it up and bring it back to Saint John for the start of Mari’s chemotherapy. After some virtual training with the previous owner they were able to use the system.

After Mari began her treatment, four of Dr. O’Brien’s best friends from medical school covered the cost the of machine — a very touching act for the O’Brien’s.  

Mari had great success with the machine; she lost some hair but was able to hide it with a ponytail and comfortably make trips for groceries and to their children’s sporting events.

“It made a huge difference for her mood,” said Dr. O’Brien. “It also kept the magnitude of her illness hidden from our children.”

After Mari’s successful treatment, the couple donated this machine to the SJRH Oncology Department.

There was no official program for the machine to be used, so volunteers put in many hours helping patients use it, as Health Canada stipulates a health care professional must supervise its use. A number of patients benefitted from the second-hand machine.  

The unit was becoming outdated, but the potential to help other patients in the Saint John area was huge.

So, they sent a proposal letter to the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation for the purchase of a new machine to officially implement the program. Thanks to donor generosity, the Foundation was able to secure the funds to purchase not only a dual (2-cap) unit that could be used by two patients at once but also a single cap unit.

“When we received the proposal and heard Dr. O’Brien and Mari’s story, we knew we had to help,” said Jamie Gallagher, President and CEO of the Foundation. “Donor generosity is what makes our work possible. We are grateful to the Saint John Canadian Lebanon Association and The Knights of Columbus Father Eugene O’Leary Council #6595 who were instrumental in helping us make these purchases possible.”

“Hair is so tied to our identity and sense of self,” said Mari. “Cold capping helped me fight cancer mentally. I was able to look in the mirror and not be reminded I was sick. It helped me feel a little more normal during a time in my life that felt the complete opposite.

“It was very important to me and Ashley (Dr. O’Brien) that more oncology patients benefit from this therapy,” she added.

The cold cap therapy has been used in Europe for over 20 years, but few hospitals in Canada offer this therapy to patients. Not all patients are treated with this system (it is effective for certain chemotherapies), and there are no guarantees with the therapy, and all patients will lose some hair, said Dr. O’Brien. 

“We are definitely going to be the leader in Atlantic Canada when it comes to this therapy for chemotherapy-induced hair loss,” said Dr. O’Brien.

The SJRH Oncology Department, with the support of a breast health nurse navigator have embraced the system, and the program is now part of the patient’s cancer treatment assessment and planning.

Jordan King, Breast Health Nurse Navigator at Horizon’s St. Joseph’s Hospital, has used the machine with breast cancer patients.

“Many patients want to keep a sense of ‘normalcy’ through their cancer journey, especially for their young children,” said Jordan. “Thanks to the generosity of others in our community, we can help more and more women with cancer be able to keep their hair, their independence, and provide them hope for the future.

“Hopefully, in the future, this will be considered the standard of care and everyone in NB will have access to it,” she added.