Deep brain stimulation

Parkinson's surgery changing lives

Area doctor among handful performing technique

Among other improvements, Centennial resident John Bauer's dexterity improved after his surgery, enhancing his playing ability. Photo by Jane Reuter
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Centennial resident John Bauer describes the surgery that eased his Parkinson's disease symptoms as a small miracle.
“I have an increase in energy and just feel overall better,” said the 66-year-old, diagnosed with the disease 10 years ago. “Now I only take one Parkinson's medication, and that's 50 percent of what it was. I used to take three (medications).”
Bauer underwent a surgical procedure called deep brain stimulation at Littleton Adventist Hospital. Dr. David VanSickle, who also performs the procedure at Lone Tree's Sky Ridge Medical Center, inserts electrodes into the brains of those suffering from Parkinson's disease. The electrical stimulation blocks abnormal nerve signals that cause many of Parkinson's most troublesome symptoms. 
“If not the most, it's one of the most effective treatments,” VanSickle said. “Quality of life will improve 25 to 30 percent.”
About 60,000 people are diagnosed with the disease annually.
VanSickle is among a handful of doctors nationally who perform the procedure while patients are asleep. That not only reduces patients' stress, it cuts down on the time required for surgery and allows VanSickle greater accuracy in placing the electrodes.
The surgical treatment is most effective for treating the motor symptoms associated with Parkinson's, including tremors, rigidity and limited facial expression.
That final symptom “hurts their relationships with their family members,” VanSickle said, because loved ones are unable to read facial expressions.
“People do it for the tremor,” he said. “But the number one result they like is the facial expressions. I hear people say, 'Thank you for giving me my wife or husband back. This is the person I married.'"
After years of living with the disease, Bauer's symptoms worsened significantly in 2013, prompting him to move forward with the surgery.
“The biggest thing I've noticed is when I'm driving,” he said. “Before, I was really afraid to drive; it was just the way my nervous system was reacting.”
Bauer now drives with ease and confidence. Because he's caring for his ailing wife, that's vital for them both.
“I trained as a neurosurgeon, but I fell in love with this patient population,” VanSickle said. “You make half as much as you would as a spine surgeon. But they are really nice people. And they get quite a bit better. I believe in it.”