PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Former physical education teacher Debra Snyder has had Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade.
“I noticed my right arm. When I would walk, it wouldn’t have a natural swing to it,” Debra said. “I didn’t have a tremor like most people do, but I had rigidity in my body, just stiffness.”
The problem is the nerve signal dopamine. The part of the brain that makes it breaks down, and the result is shaking, balance problems, and slowness of movement.
Medicines helped her a lot, but over the years, her symptoms increased, and she had to take more and more medicine.
“I was taking up to 26 pills a day, and then they have side effects,” Debra said.
Without her medicine, she couldn’t move. She couldn’t play with her granddaughter or carry her.
She was aware of a brain surgery to help her.
“I wasn’t real thrilled about the drilling into your skull,” she said.
But, after two years of thinking about it, it was time.
“I was ready for the surgery, yes,” she said.
The surgery is called deep brain stimulation. This involves implanting electrodes within certain areas of your brain. The electrical impulses from the electrodes can affect certain cells and chemicals within the brain.
A pacemaker type device is put in the upper chest. This controls the amount of stimulation through wires under the skin connected to the electrodes in the brain.
“It’s a brain surgery,” said AHN Parkinson’s disease specialist Dr. Timothy Leichliter, “All brain surgeries come with risks, which is why we don’t just jump straight to brain surgery.”
The surgery has been around for two decades.
“People who are good responders to the medicines, but also having trouble with the medicines are the best candidates,” Dr. Leichliter adds.
For a long time, there was only one type of device, but now there are three, each one an improvement on the one before, particularly in the computer accuracy.
“If you think about the targets that we’re aiming for, are very, very small, and to make sure you’re in the right spot, and not the wrong spot, we’re talking about a few millimeters,” said Dr. Leichliter.
The latest one came on the market in December 2017. It’s called Versice.
For the surgery, a ring is attached to the patient’s head for GPS navigation. And the patient is fully awake. Debra remembers it well.
“It didn’t seem like they could get in right away, and I heard them say, we need a new diamond bit. It was just so loud. Like an earthquake,” she said.
So far, the team at Allegheny General Hospital has done just over a dozen cases with the new device.
“This doesn’t fix Parkinson’s disease, it treats it,” Dr. Leichliter said.
It is most helpful with tremors and slowness of movement. The devices are not as helpful with the balance issues or loss of speech volume that come with Parkinson’s.
“I’m on nine pills a day, whereas I was on 26. And I will always be on some type of medication,” said Debra.
Debra has to charge her device every day, and has to have it checked every five months, but she no longer has periods where she can’t move. As a treatment, it has her back to her old self.
“I mow the yard, and garden, and watch my granddaughter,” she said. “I’m able to pick her up and carry her.”