Brain surgery leaves OKC man feeling the best he has in years
Oklahoma City — As recently as a month ago, Bryan Williams had to plan every day carefully, making the most of the time between when his medications kicked in and when they wore off, leaving him exhausted and in pain.
Williams, 45, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease about five years ago, when his muscles would unexpectedly “freeze up,” largely immobilizing him. His right hand had the worst reaction, and things like taking the cap off a water bottle and tying his shoes became impossible.
“When you have Parkinson's, you have to physically think ‘Speak,' or ‘Open my hand,' instead of just doing it,” he said.
In November, he underwent three surgeries to implant two wires in his brain and a device similar to a pacemaker in his chest, to try a treatment called deep-brain stimulation. When the electricity was turned on, Williams was able to easily open and close his right hand for the first time in years. He still takes medication, but the electricity smooths out the fluctuations and makes it easier for him to do things with their three children, his wife Carla Williams said.
“He was constantly hurting, constantly tired,” she said. “The kids say, ‘Dad's back.'”
In Parkinson's disease, the brain cells that produce dopamine die for an unknown reason. Dopamine works with other chemicals in the brain to control movement, and without enough of it, patients develop tremors, stiffness, slowed movements and trouble with balance.
Most patients are diagnosed later in life, and those that are diagnosed relatively young tend to see their symptoms progress more slowly than Williams did, said Dr. Cherian Karunapuzha, a neurologist at Mercy NeuroScience Institute who treats him. When medications no longer control symptoms well enough, deep-brain stimulation can be the next option, he said.
The technology has existed for decades, but it's still not entirely settled how it works. The working theory is that it keeps electrical circuits in the brain firing at the right time, doing one of dopamine's jobs, Karunapuzha said. Eventually, too many cells will die and electrical stimulation will no longer control symptoms, but it can help patients to work and enjoy activities until that happens, he said.
“We're trying to improve functioning and quality of life,” he said.
While deep-brain stimulation is generally safe, about 2 percent of patients experience bleeding on the brain. About 15 percent experience a short-term problem, such as an infection after the surgery, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Most people report symptom improvement, but others aren't helped, or experience side effects like dizziness, difficulty concentrating or the feeling they're being shocked.
Williams said the only side effects he experienced were pain and swelling from the metal device used to hold his head still during the surgery, because the surgeon needed him to be awake at times to answer questions. While he and Karunapuzha are still tweaking the settings on the stimulator, he's feeling good enough to start tackling home repair projects, and maybe to return to work at FedEx — though maybe not to his original job moving packages.
“Best I've felt in years,” he said.