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Mercy opens movement disorder center in Oklahoma City after 10 years of planning

Dr. Cherian Karunapuzha

Dr. Cherian Karunapuzha

Oklahoma City — After about a decade of planning, Mercy NeuroScience's new movement disorder center has started to see patients.

The center specializes in neurological disorders related to movement, such as Parkinson's disease, tremors and severe muscle spasms. Neurologists, neurosurgeons and physical, occupational and speech therapists share a building fronted by a glass pyramid on Mercy's Memorial Road campus.

The 10-year lead-up reflects the difficulty of starting such a specialized enterprise, which isn't expected to turn a profit.

Mercy laid the groundwork by adding neurologists and neurosurgeons to its depth chart over the years, but the center remained on hold, said Dr. Richard Vertrees Smith, medical director of Mercy NeuroScience. Two important factors — a neurologist specializing in movement disorders and a donor willing to pay for the equipment — were missing.

“They were both critical parts to bring this all together,” he said. “We were just waiting for the right catalyst to make it happen, and then it did.”

The center got an unexpected jumpstart last fall as Dr. Cherian Karunapuzha, a neurologist who specializes in movement disorders, considered the future of his practice.

Karunapuzha had been part of a neurology clinic at University of Oklahoma, which he'd hoped would grow into a movement disorders center. The goal hit a major setback when some other physicians left, and the other Oklahoma City hospitals couldn't commit to funding a center if he joined them. He didn't think Mercy was a realistic possibility, because its board tended to be conservative in its spending, he said.

Specialized centers are financially challenging at the beginning, because it's difficult to bring in a large volume of patients with one type of need, Karunapuzha said. The need for expensive equipment makes it an even harder financial case to make, he said.

While he wanted to keep treating patients in Oklahoma, Karunapuzha said he considered accepting a position at the University of Texas, Dallas. He decided to tell his patients in advance, so they wouldn't be surprised if he left. If he had left, Oklahoma patients would have had to travel to Kansas City or Dallas to find a neurologist specializing in movement disorders.

One of those patients, Herman Meinders, had the money and the inclination to keep Karunapuzha in Oklahoma. He donated $1.7 million to Mercy to pay for the equipment to start a movement disorder center like the one Karunapuzha had wanted to build at OU.

Meinders, who has Parkinson's disease, had founded American Flower Services, which later merged with Teleflora. He said he had learned about the need for a comprehensive care option in Oklahoma through his work with the Parkinson's Foundation.

“We now have the best care,” he said.

Meinders' gift paid for “state of the art” equipment, such as a portable CT scanner that can take images of the brain during surgery, Smith said. Having that equipment allows them to ensure the electrodes are placed properly without taking patients to the imaging suite mid-operation.

“We can do it all in the operating room,” he said.

Karunapuzha said he expects some patients will come only for surgery with Dr. Eric Friedman, then return to their hometown doctors. Others may come in at regular intervals when they can schedule their medical and therapy appointments together.

“The rich, because of their wealth, have access to the best care they can get,” Karunapuzha said during the center's blessing ceremony. Meinders “chose to extend that privilege to almost 1,000 patients in my clinic. If that's not being Christian, I don't know what is.”

For more information, call the movement disorder center at 405-302-2661.

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›