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Medical advancements help Iowa man find steady hands

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Published: May. 26, 2022 at 10:39 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Deep brain stimulation has been in medical practice for two decades, but was once an inexact procedure with accompanying downfalls. Now, remarkably improved technology, including adjustable applications on the patient’s own handheld device, have opened new doors.

Pottawattamie County, Iowa resident Merlin Jones is among those with a new lease on life because of DBS.

For 50 years, after a childhood bout of meningitis, through a life of rough and tumble sports including mixed martial arts and work as a farmer, essential tremors have been a steadily disabling factor in Jones’ life.

”The last ten years it has gotten markedly worse, it was to the point where it was debilitating,” Jones said. “It was affecting all aspects of my life, (wife Sharon) would have to cut my meat, there were meals where half my wife would have to feed me. Just the everyday things that you take for granted.”

Other treatments were marginally helpful. Then Dr. Melinda Burnett and neurosurgeon Dr. Craig Rabb of the CHI Neurological Institute at Immanuel Medical Center and Creighton University Medical Center proposed deep brain stimulation, a sort of electric pacemaker for the brain, which has come light years in precision treatment over the past decade.

“Most people who go through deep brain stimulation are understandably very scared at the beginning,” Burnett said. “But the vast majority say it was worth going through brain surgery to have their tremor relieved. It really turns back the clock, it gives them independence. It has really allowed (Jones) to be able to do what he needs to do to live his life so well.”.

Jones liked the idea, but before undergoing the procedure, he contracted Covid-19.

“I didn’t realize until after I had recovered from Covid how much I wanted this,” Jones said. “Even just the promise, that you can pick things up, that you can cut vegetables that you can eat without using a serving spoon. And the level of frustration...”

So they implanted wires in his brain to stimulate the precise location to shut down his tremors. Instantly, Merlin’s life changed.

“Electrical wires go up under the skin of the neck and under the skin of the scalp into the brain through two holes in the skull,” Burnett said. “It’s interesting because we have found that by putting electricity through these wires, we can essentially turn off one of the areas of the brain that send tremor from the brain to the hands.”

“After the surgery, they gave me a cup of juice, and I took it in my good hand because they said I’d be able to do it,” a teary-eyed Jones said. “I took hold of that Styrofoam cup and I was able to drink (without spilling), first time in probably 25 years.”

Burnett said her team is able to use the multimedia aspects of the advancing technology to help more people like Jones.

“(Now we can) program people remotely,” she said. “Before people had to come to my office... where I would tweak their stimulator. (But) now we can remotely do this via smart pad technologies. It really has opened up this as an option for people who live in places like western Nebraska, rural areas that may not have a neurology office down the street and it’s it’s really are kind of revolutionized the number of people that can get this technology option for tremors.”

Jones had his surgery in March and feels like he has improved every day.

“The tremors were a blessing in many ways,” he said. “Because I started looking at people who have issues, whatever that issue is, in a different way. In my life (the tremors) were debilitating, but someone who has arthritis, or they’re missing a hand, and how they have to adapt.”

“Given this second chance to be able to control my body,” Jones added. “Maybe I can play the piano again, or the guitar, or the organ, I mean, the world has opened up to me again, all those things that I had to give up, because the tremors would not let me do them, and now maybe I can.”

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