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Deep Brain Stimulation: Carolyn's Story

For more than 10 years, Carolyn Bridges managed to live well with the shakiness and stiffness on her left side. Her symptoms—the result of Parkinson’s disease—were slight, sporadic and mostly subdued by medication. Only 37 years old when diagnosed, she married, had a baby, worked full­time and maintained a household without much more difficulty than other busy women.

Deep Brain Stimulation changed my life
-Carolyn Bridges


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But then her disease advanced, while—perversely—the effectiveness of her treatments declined. That’s a sad but common progression with Parkinson’s. Everyday activities became harder and harder.

“By 2011, I didn’t really ‘walk’ anymore, I shuffled,” says the Olney, Maryland, resident of her worst days. “I was dragging my leg, and both my hand and foot curled inward.  People thought I had had a stroke.”

Frustrated and depressed, with her medical options exhausted, she fortunately knew where to turn for the help she needed: Zachary Levine, MD, medical director of neurosurgery for Holy Cross Hospital.

An Innovative Approach
Dr. Levine is one of the world’s most renowned and experienced experts in Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)— a surgical procedure that can relieve symptoms from certain movement disorders. With more than 500 of the delicate procedures to his credit, he teaches and mentors other doctors in the technique, both here and abroad.

In 2012, Dr. Levine brought his expertise, reputation and team to Holy Cross Hospital’s established neuroscience program. The addition of DBS makes the hospital only the fifth in all of Maryland and the District of Columbia to offer the high ­level service and further advances the program.

“We’re building a clinical center of excellence here and DBS is part of that equation,” says Dr. Levine, adding that he has a ‘real love’ for the sophisticated yet low ­risk procedure. “While it’s not a cure, and not for everyone, DBS lets many people with Parkinson’s, essential tremor and other movement disorders reduce their symptoms and reclaim their lives.”

How It Works 
Movement disorders are caused by brain signals that go haywire, firing off faulty instructions to the body. DBS stops or reduces that process by generating other, more powerful electrical stimulations that counteract the misguided messages. It works for the brain much as a pacemaker does for the heart.

The procedure is completed in several stages, starting with advanced 3-­D imaging to pinpoint the source of the problem. Next, the neurosurgeon tests different spots in the brain to find the most effective placement for the electrical wires, or leads, to con­trol symptoms. A week later, the bat­tery pack that sends electricity to the leads is implanted in the chest or ab­domen. Placing the leads involves a two­-day hospital stay, while the bat­tery pack insertion is an outpatient procedure.

About three to four weeks follow­ing the initial surgery, the neurologist “turns on” the battery and begins the process of finding the right strength and frequency to get the best results.  A new feature—a home programming device—lets patients fine­tune some of the electrical firings on their own after the initial setting.

While some people notice an immediate difference, it can take up to three months for symptoms to subside.

An Amazing Experience
Carolyn had surgery in December 2012.  Still in the adjustment phase, her hand tremors have basically stopped, while the rigidityof her foot lingers.

“Before DBS, I had almost no control over my left side,” says the 51­year­old. “Now I can hold a glass full of water and eat in a restaurant again. Eventually, I expect to walk normally, without so much as a cane.”

Calling DBS “absolutely painless,” Carolyn wishes she had undergone the procedure earlier, when her symptoms first nose­dived.

“Dr. Levine is remarkable, and Holy Cross Hospital was amazing,” she says. “Everyone from admitting to discharge was so nice. I felt like I was the president, and their only patient.”

Now back at work, Carolyn has this advice for others with uncon­trolled movement disorders: “You don’t have to suffer with those severe symptoms. Don’t let fear of  ‘brain surgery’ scare you away from DBS. It changed my life and it may change yours, too.”

Learn more about treating Parkinson's Disease at Holy Cross Hospital.

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