Deep Brain Stimulation Procedure Quiets Severe Tremors

Don-Thornton-350x500(1)It takes a steady hand to precisely line up squares and triangles of fabric, thread a needle and stitch the material together into a colorful, patterned quilt. Don Thornton, age 62, took up the craft about 15 years ago while on sick leave from his job. As he passed the time flipping through television channels, he happened upon a quilting show and got hooked. 

“I could do that,” he thought. Since then, he’s sewn dozens of decorative quilts for family and friends – until essential tremors made his hands too unsteady to perform the intricate movements needed for threading and stitching. 

Don has a seizure disorder that began at age 30. He takes medicines to control the seizures, but the medicines cause tremors as a side effect. As Don has increased his medicine in recent years for better seizure control, his tremors have worsened, as well. 

Trained as a nurse, Don took disability retirement about five years ago as director of surgery for Good Samaritan Hospital (closed in 2018) in Dayton. One of the on-the-job difficulties he recalls was signing documents and orders with a shaking hand. “Signing my name was awful,” he says. “Once, my nurse had to hold my hand down to stop the scribbling.”

Everyday fine motor tasks were no better: “I couldn’t keep soup on a spoon. I had a hard time using a fork or drinking a cup of coffee. I’d spill it all over me before getting it to my mouth. Little things like putting toothpaste on my toothbrush and getting the brush to my teeth instead of my face were a chore.”

As his tremors increased, Don asked his neurologist if there was anything more he could do. “I was at the point that I didn’t want to live like this – having people look at me but wanting to be able to eat out and enjoy it, and wanting to do the things I like doing without shaking.” 

A Procedure to Stop the Shaking

Don’s neurologist described a surgical procedure called deep brain stimulation (also called DBS), which helps restore order and stability to poorly functioning brain circuits that cause tremors. 

Before the procedure, a neurosurgeon orders a CT scan and MRI to identify areas of the brain where the tremors originate. The surgeon then precisely implants an electrode into that part of the brain. A small programmable battery is connected to the electrode and surgically placed in the chest. It transmits electrical signals to the electrode in the brain to stop tremors. Two weeks after surgery, a neurologist programs optimal brain stimulation with a remote device. 

“At first, my wife said ‘no, you’re not going to have brain surgery.’ But I’ve been in surgery for all my working years. I’ve seen this surgery. I know the chances,” Don says.

Don made an appointment with Daniel Gaudin, MD, PhD, neurosurgeon with the Clinical Neuroscience Institute.

“You have to be comfortable with your surgeon,” Don says. “Dr. Gaudin answered every question I had. I asked about statistics and infection rates. He was truthful with me. I felt very comfortable going into this. Even my wife was a whole lot better after talking with him.” 

Dr. Gaudin successfully performed the surgery in October 2018 at Miami Valley Hospital. Once the electrode and neurostimulator were implanted and Don’s brain had time to heal for a couple of weeks, Don saw a movement disorders specialist with the Clinical Neuroscience Institute, who worked with him to program the neurostimulator. 

Satisfying Results

“The doctors worked on the left side of my brain to stop the tremors in my right hand,” Don explains. His movement disorders specialist did the fine tuning for the stimulator and then gave Don an iPod with an app that allows him to adjust the stimulation within a certain safe range. He can even turn off the stimulation at night, since the tremors don’t bother him when he’s asleep. 

Shortly after the surgery, Don celebrated by taking wife, adult children, their spouses and grandchildren out for a big steak dinner. His wife posted the good news on Facebook, with a video showing Don’s steady right hand with the stimulation. 

“My brother, who’s a doctor, saw that video and cried,” Don says. “My wife cried a bit, too. It was amazing.” 

Don says his hand is 95 percent better. He’s so satisfied with the results that he’s contemplating going back to get the procedure on his right side to stop the tremors in his left hand. 

“I can brush my teeth, drink coffee and eat without food flying all over the table,” he says.

He also can thread a needle again, and he has resumed quilting. His latest project is a quilt for his 2-year-old granddaughter. 

“The everyday stuff is what I’m enjoying,” Don says. “I have a new outlook on everything I do.”

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