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Deep brain stimulation 'life changing' for man with Parkinson's disease

Parkinson's disease was stealing away Kevin Nell bit by bit.

The husband, grandfather and retired mechanical engineer had been an active, outgoing guy who played in a bluegrass band, restored cars and fished for stripers on the Chesapeake Bay.

But eventually his hands shook so bad that the 69-year-old York County man struggled to even dress himself. His legs grew so unreliable that he started falling at unpredictable times. His mind grew so sleepy from medication that he stopped driving his beloved hot rod, a dark blue 1964 Falcon Sprint. He became so withdrawn that he stopped talking or smiling.

"You know, he was there, but there's a mask that goes along with this condition and he was wearing it," Kevin's wife, Sydney says. "I felt like I was losing my husband."

In July, Kevin received the latest version of an innovative treatment called deep brain stimulation used to treat patients with Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders such as essential tremor. In a four-hour procedure at WellSpan York Hospital, neurosurgeon Dr. Joel Winer implanted two wires in Kevin's brain that are attached to a pacemaker-like device implanted in his chest. The wires send impulses to his brain that help to regulate his brain's activity and lessen his symptoms from Parkinson's disease.

"Afterward, almost instantly, I could button my shirts and pants, and walk decently. I didn't drag my foot," said Kevin, who grows emotional when he thinks about how much his life has changed since the treatment. "They said as soon as they placed the wires, it stimulates your brain.

"I had been very quiet but when I came home from the surgery, I talked a tin ear on my wife."

Sydney's eyes fill with tears, and she reaches for her husband's hand.

"Deep brain stimulation was life changing for my husband," she said. "It gave him his life back."

Dr. Winer has been doing deep brain stimulation treatments since 1997, performing about a dozen each year on patients with Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders. This summer, the neurosurgeon began using an updated version of the treatment that features improved wires, or leads, that allow a more personalized, directed treatment for patients, with fewer side effects.

"Before these newer leads, we sometimes had to accept side effects even with benefits when we did deep brain stimulation," Dr. Winer said. "These are infinitely better."

Using a metaphor that a man like Kevin can appreciate, Dr. Winer says, the latest version of deep brain stimulation is "the Lamborghini of treatment" and that it is wonderful to see the effects.

"These patients have had their quality of life squashed by the disease process … They can't feed themselves. They can't go out in public. They are very self-conscious. It's very difficult for them," he said. "They become homebound, away from friends and family. And now, all of a sudden, they have a new lease on life. It's very dramatic."

Dr. Anthony May, the WellSpan neurologist who referred Kevin for the treatment and oversees his follow-up care, said the new treatment can help patients who have side effects from medications or for whom medications become less effective over time.

"Deep brain stimulation basically acts like medication, but electrically and without the same type of side effects," he said. "Because it's constant, you don't get the same wearing-off problem that you do with pills."

The treatment is adjustable too, Dr. May said, and can be fine-tuned to meet a patient's needs. Patients even can adjust the stimulator themselves to get more symptom control. During a recent appointment with Kevin, the effect of the stimulator became obvious when Dr. May turned down the voltage on the stimulator with a small controller. Kevin's hands quickly begin to visibly shake again, stopping when the voltage was adjusted to the proper frequency.

Sydney, a retired WellSpan employee, said her husband has had a long journey with Parkinson's disease since his diagnosis, almost a decade ago. The couple credits the encouragement they received from their daughter, Jackie Anderson, a nurse practitioner who had worked for Dr. Winer (she is now is at WellSpan Family Medicine – South Queen Street), in helping Kevin to decide to undergo the procedure.

"You could see the changes right away," she said. "I was thrilled. He suffered for a long time. He had a lot of people praying for him with this and he was ready to do it. He came through it very well."

Kevin has plans now. He is looking forward to big things, such as playing his Dobro, a type of acoustic guitar, and going to "garage night" with his buddies to work on cars. He and Sydney bought a place in Florida and are excited to go there.

And he is looking forward to the little things, too, things that most of us do without thinking.

Before the treatment, he could not stand and talk to other people. For some reason, he had to sit down when he spoke.

"That really bothered me," he said. "One of the things I first noticed was I could stand and talk to people. … I could actually stand there and talk. I can do things that I couldn't do."

Learn more about WellSpan Neurosurgery services by going here.