CINCINNATI, May 4, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- It's been one step at
a time for Farah Willenbrock, 17, of
Champaign, Illinois. Last summer,
the once avid ballet dancer could barely walk. A debilitating
illness caused constant stomach pain and nausea.
"It was a little bit scary," Farah said. "I didn't really know
what was wrong with me."
Scott Willenbrock, Farah's dad,
said that sometimes the pain went from bad to intolerable. "There
were times where she was just lying in bed, weeping in pain for
hours," he said. "That's very hard to watch."
Farah stopped eating and drinking because of the pain and
required a feeding tube. She visited a number of doctors and
specialists in Illinois and the
surrounding area. Her dad spent countless hours researching her
symptoms, looking for experts to help.
"I did start to question; 'Is this pain just in my head, and am
I making this up?' " Farah said. "So that was a really scary period
for me, being doubted so often."
A nurse from another hospital pointed Farah's dad to Cincinnati
Children's, where the family met with Neha
Santucci, MD, a neuro-gastroenterologist. She diagnosed
Farah with two conditions: 1) functional dyspepsia, a chronic
disorder where the upper digestive tract shows symptoms of pain and
nausea for months and 2) irritable bowel syndrome, which impacts
"We believe that it's chemical imbalances in the nerves lining
the GI tract that give this kind of pain," Santucci said. "It's
very much like a migraine, where you do CTs and MRIs and everything
comes back normal. But we all know how severe migraine pain is, and
the GI tract has the same neurotransmitters that are in the
Santucci recommended the IB-Stim device for treatment. IB-Stim
delivers neuromodulation therapy, which studies show works by
decreasing the pain signals that are carried from the
gastrointestinal tract nerves to the brain. The IB-Stim device is
taped behind the ear. It has four wires, each attached to
electrodes that have a thin needle. Santucci inserted the
electrodes near nerve bundles on the external ear surface at four
marked sites, and the device delivered electrical pulses.
Farah wore the disposable device for five consecutive days each
week for four weeks, and her dad noticed a difference.
"The IB-Stim was subtle," Scott
Willenbrock said. "You know it's on her ear, you don't see
what it's doing, you don't know what it's doing, but what happened
is that she started eating better."
For the next step in her treatment, Santucci introduced Farah to
Sara Williams, PhD, a pediatric
psychologist with the FIRST program, which stands for functional
independence restoration. It's one of the country's only
comprehensive inpatient rehabilitation programs for
children whose severe, chronic pain is preventing them from
enjoying a good quality of life.
The program is part of the Pain Management Center at
Cincinnati Children's, which is nationally recognized for its
expertise in the diagnosis, treatment, and research of complex
pediatric pain conditions.
"Our model in the FIRST program is putting function first, which
means every single day, no matter how you're feeling, if you're
having a high pain day, if you're having a medium pain day, you're
going to do the things on your schedule," said Sara Williams, PhD, psychologist at Cincinnati
Children's. "Because doing that – and giving your body the practice
of doing all those things – is going to help undo that pain
signaling that's been so strong in keeping you out of your
Every day, Farah took part in eight hours of scheduled,
structured treatment – including physical and occupational
therapy and meeting with a pediatric pain psychologist. On
her last day of treatment, Farah was able to dance for the first
time in months.
"I've learned a lot of deep-breathing relaxation techniques,"
Farah said. "I've learned about reframing, a lot, which has been
really helpful for me. I'm thinking of all the progress that I've
made and what I'm looking forward to getting back to."
Farah is now back home in Illinois, dancing with a ballet company.
If you would like more information about the FIRST program, go
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SOURCE Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center