How Deep Brain Stimulation Set William Free From The Effects Of Parkinson's

William Stark was too young to feel so old.

In 2002, at age 47, William was diagnosed with early stages of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive brain disorder that causes shaking, difficulty walking and problems with movement. For a decade, he tried different medications to control his muscle shaking, but the symptoms worsened.

“When your medication is working really well, they say you’re ‘on,’ and when it’s not working, you’re ‘off,’” he explains.

“For me, there were no signs before I’d go off. It was like turning on a switch—it was instantaneous. I’d be in a grocery store and, boom, just freeze, not able to move.”

By 2012, he felt like a prisoner: “I was 50-something, and I was locked in my house; I couldn’t drive and I could hardly do any work outside, because what if I fell?”

When medications stop working

That’s when William saw a news story about deep brain stimulation (DBS) procedures, in which patients are implanted with a tiny device that sends electrical pulses to specific areas of the brain to stop muscle tremors.

He studied the procedure and, with support and encouragement from his wife, Brenda, and four children, underwent deep brain stimulation surgery on the left side of his brain (which controls the right side of his body) at University of Minnesota Medical Center in 2013.

During the six-hour surgery to implant the electrodes into his brain, William was conscious, his head completely stabilized in a metal frame.

Four weeks later, a battery pack was implanted in his chest (much like a pacemaker), and electricity began flowing to the electrodes, controlling his muscle movements.

“After the first surgery, I knew I’d do it again for my left side, for sure, because it worked so well,” he says.

Creating a more comfortable experience

The second time around, this past April, William sought the help of neurosurgeon Paul Gigante, MD, at the Spine and Brain Clinic at Fairview Southdale Hospital. 

Paul is one of only a handful of surgeons in the state who performs deep brain stimulation procedures and the only surgeon in the region who performs the procedure frameless.

While other doctors put a frame around the patient’s head to stabilize it during the procedure, Paul uses only a mini-frame around the localized area of the skull, which is less confining and more comfortable for patients.

“Eliminating the ‘halo’ that holds the patient’s head perfectly still eliminates time spent in the operating room, and allows them the freedom to move during the operation, instead of being locked into a headframe,” Paul says.

“Since the whole surgery is done while patients are awake, this is much more comfortable and is a shorter, more pleasant experience.”

A little help from Fairview Foundation’s friends

The “frameless” procedure requires perfect precision and, thanks to a generous grant to the Fairview Foundation, Paul and his team can perform it faster and easier than ever before.

Through a nearly $68,000 donation to the Fairview Foundation by an anonymous donor, Fairview Southdale Hospital was able to purchase a deep brain stimulation StealthStation S7, a machine that merges multiple images of the patient’s brain (such as CT and MRI scans) to pinpoint exactly where the electrodes need to be placed.

“Because of this generous grant, the work of Dr. Gigante and our entire care team, we have been able to expand our neurosurgical services to include this life-changing procedure,” says Dana Quinn, director of orthopedics, neuroscience and business development.

“As a result, Fairview is able to do more for the patients and communities we serve than ever before.”

Having undergone both the traditional and the frameless DBS procedure, William can attest to the benefits of the StealthStation.

“The day before the procedure, [Paul] put six tiny screws in my head, which he used as a GPS guide during the surgery, rather than a halo,” William says. “I was much more comfortable and it only took about 2.5 hours. There was no pain, just a little numbness.”

‘It’s much, much better’

Today, William’s life looks drastically different than it did a few years ago.

“I’m working a part-time job now. I can mow the lawn again. I can drive,” he says. “I take one-eighth the medications I took before. I feel confident, going somewhere, that I won’t freeze up. I never really have ‘off’ time now. I can’t do everything I could before, but it’s much, much better.”

And his sense of humor hasn’t gone anywhere.

“The neurologist’s team gave me a little remote to control the power to my electrodes, so I can adjust it a little bit… but I never give it to my wife—she can freeze me up for the whole day!” he jokes.

The hope is that the StealthStation will increase Paul’s capacity for DBS patients, because the need is growing.

“There are between 1,800 and 3,500 people in Minnesota who are candidates for this procedure and only a handful of doctors who perform it,” says Dana Gillespie, director of institutional giving for the Fairview Foundation.

“Dr. Gigante is going to be an incredibly busy person.”

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