Halfway across the world in an office on Union Avenue, New Jersey, there is a world map littered with coloured pins.
There are 85 of them in total and each one represents a person whose life has been changed by Michael Cooney’s calmare therapy.
One of the pins belongs to 24-year-old Corryong woman Emily Hewatt.
When she marked her hometown on the map, it happened to be the first time she stood unassisted in three years.
Complex regional pain syndrome is just that – complex.
CRPS commonly develops after an injury or surgery, but medical professionals are at odds as to the cause.
Those living with the condition experience constant pain, and symptoms can include abnormal hair growth and loss of finer motor skills – extreme cases can lead to amputation.
For Emily, it all began after she fell off a horse and broke her hand in 2012.
“I woke up after the surgery in absolute agony,” she said.
“When the specialist diagnosed it, he wrote ‘reflex sympathetic dystrophy’ on a piece of paper, pushed it over to me and said ‘go home and google it’.
“When I did, I read it could spread through your whole body and there was no real treatment.”
The CRPS did just that – after Emily had a fall in 2013, it spread to her left leg.
“It was only a matter of weeks before I had to use a wheelchair,” she said.
“There was every type of pain you could imagine – the pain all the time was a burning kind of feeling, but then there was a shock-like pain and feeling like your bones were splitting.
“I needed help to shower and dress, whereas before that I was a hairdresser, a typical 20-year-old, running my own business.”
When Emily found out about Dr Cooney’s 85 per cent success rate in treating symptoms, she knew it was her only hope to get her life back.
An enormous community fundraising campaign with the Lions Club of Corryong, including partnership with the 2016 Man From Snowy River Festival, raised $40,000 for her to travel to New Jersey.
“The ride over was pretty tough – they put me on oxygen on the last flight because they were a bit scared I wasn’t going to make it off the plane,” she said.
“After resting for three days, we started treatment and I had quite a significant pain reduction on the first round.”
Her pain, affected by the air temperature and pressure, returned when a hurricane came through New Jersey – this also happened for another patient.
But after 12 treatments of ‘scrambler therapy’ at 40 minutes a session, Emily began to reclaim her body.
Dr Cooney’s treatment, using electrodes placed on affected areas, is drug-free.
“The therapy scrambles a mis-firing pain message coming from the brain,” he said.
“Simply stated, the device tells the brain, ‘there’s no pain here any longer, so you can stop sending the pain message’.”
Calmare therapy treats any neuropathic pain – but there have been more patients coming through Dr Cooney’s door for CRPS than any other condition.
“It helps overcome pain from chemotherapy treatment, diabetic pain, pain after surgery and shingles pain,” he said.
“Days after we introduced the treatment, we received calls from people with CRPS who had tried every drug, every treatment, even surgery, but were still in pain.”
So far, the New Jersey doctor has treated 20 Australians.
One in 10 of those people will see a return of their CRPS after they have been symptom-free.
Emily is not cured of the condition and like most patients, will need a booster.
But when that happens, she wants it to be on home turf.
Dr Cooney said any Australian pain management doctor could follow in his footsteps by contacting the global distributor to investigate purchasing the technology.
“Chronic Pain Australia says chronic pain affects at least one in five people, and costs the economy in excess of $34 billion every year,” he said.
“Alternative therapies like scrambler therapy can save thousands of dollars, when compared to prescription painkillers, invasive devices such as the spinal cord stimulator, or Ketamine treatments.
“We encourage the Australian government to pursue clinical trials in their own network of hospitals and see firsthand the possibilities to serve a large patient population who is desperate for help.”
The link between Australians and calmare therapy lies with the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods.
Getting calmare on this register will now be the mission of Emily and her mother, Alison, members of the Purple Bucket Foundation dedicated to CRPS.
They will continue fundraising for booster treatments and to support the lengthy and costly process dealing with the ARTG.
“While its been a huge journey, and this is sort of a climax, there’s still a huge journey to go,” Alison said.
“We need to get this treatment here.”
For such a simple remedy, Emily’s cost has been high – financial stress, physical pain, and a massive 15,000 kilometre journey.
Her former high school teacher, Ria Crisp, still can’t comprehend it.
“Everything that went into this – the fundraising, the emotional journey – is so much for eight hours, which is nothing time-wise.
“If we had this here, people could simply come to Albury, Melbourne or Sydney.”
As Ria walked away from the Albury airport tarmac on Sunday with Emily by her side, they both lifted their arms in the air with the breeze – something that just months before caused Emily excruciating pain.
“I was with Em the day she had her surgery and was at the hospital – it was a nightmare from day one,” Ria said.
“It’s been a long journey over four years, feeling like you’ve lost the friend you used to do things with.
“I’ve had children in that time she hasn’t been able to hold – she’s seen them, but we’ve had to make sure they didn’t make too much noise, or squirm.
“For her to be able to come and play with my kids is a big deal.
“It’s fantastic to have her back.”
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