GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) - It's a disease that has no cure -- Parkinson's Disease affects a million Americans. But a promising procedure is helping people with Parkinson's have a better quality of life.
Deep brain stimulation can help stop those debilitating tremors, giving patients temporary relief for up to 10 years. It's offered in Grand Rapids at Saint Mary's Hauenstein Center.
Cheryle Hall has been living with Parkinson's for nearly 20 years. What started as a little tremor in her pinky, has now affected her hand and her leg.
But she's found hope in deep brain stimulation. Hall says going through the procedure is worth it, even if it only lasts ten years.
"I'm 70 years old, so who knows how long I've got? So they've have it go longer, so I figure it's a good time," says Hall.
The first step is to attach a metal halo to Hall's head with four large screws. It will hold her head absolutely still while the procedure is being performed.
Then she performs a series of hand tests. She struggles just trying to touch her each finger to her thumb. You can also notice the tremors in her hand and foot. But in about an hour those tremors should stop, once the procedure is complete.
"We make a hole the size of a dime in the skull," says Dr. Steven Klafeta, a neurosurgeon with Saint Mary's Hauenstein Center. He's been performing deep brain stimulation on Parkinson's patients in Grand Rapids for seven years.
Dr. Klafeta threads a lead the size of a human hair into the opening in Hall's skull, adjusting it down until it meets the left nucleus of her brain.
"We are trying to block the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, which is actually caused by cell death in a different area of the brain," says the neurosurgeon.
Once he has access, Dr. Klafka and his team begin the process of listening to the sound of her brain cells communicating. Yes, brain cells actually make noise. It sounds like rain hitting a tin roof.
Watch the story tonight on WZZM 13 News at 6:00pm to hear the sounds the brain makes.
As Dr. Klafeta advances through the white brain matter, it sounds like static on a radio. As he gets closer to the nucleus of the brain, where there is the highest amount of activity, he hears the familiar popping sound and it guides Dr. Klafeta in as close to the center of the nucleus as possible.
Once there, the device that will be stimulating Hall's brain for the next 10 years is inserted and her tremor in her hand stops. She performs the hand exercises once again and this time there is no struggle. It's like she no longer has Parkinson's.
But Dr. Klafeta reminds us that deep brain stimulation is not a cure. "This doesn't stop the disease. The cells in the brain continue to die at their own pace."
Hall understands that, but for now she's thinking about what she will do with her new found independence.
"I think I could go out and dance... I've waited for this and I thought I wasn't gonna get it," she says.
But now Hall has it, if only for a short while.
There's no telling how long it will be before Hall's tremors return. When they start, Dr. Klafeta will increase the stimulation in her brain until that no longer stops the tremors. Of course, the hope is that by the time they return, there may be another therapy or better yet a cure for Parkinson's.
Grand Rapids is hosting a Parkinson's Victory Summit this Saturday for anyone living with Parkinson's and that includes patients and families. It's being held at Devos Hall from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.