Vail Daily health feature: Deep Brain Stimulation therapy can help correct Parkinson’s symptoms |

Vail Daily health feature: Deep Brain Stimulation therapy can help correct Parkinson’s symptoms

This is roughly what happens when deep brain stimulation surgery is performed on Parkinson's patients. The pacemaker device sends elecrtrical impulses to the brain that eliminates the sypmtoms of Parkinson's Disease.
Medtronic | Special to the Daily |

If You Go

What: Parkinson’s Support Group.

When: 5-6 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Trinity Church, 90 Lariat Loop, Edwards.

Cost: Free.

More information: RSVP by calling Carly Reitmann, the Eagle County Healthy Aging program coordinator, at 970-328-8896.

What it is

Deep Brain Stimulation therapy is a treatment for movement symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, including shaking, stiffness and difficulty moving. The objective of DBS is to gives you more relief without giving you more medicine.

A small, pacemaker-like device sends electronic signals to an area in the brain that controls movement. These signals block some of the brain messages that cause annoying and disabling motor symptoms.

What it does

Electrical stimulation is delivered to targeted areas on both sides of the brain to help relieve symptoms on both sides of the body.

Electrodes are connected by wires to a type of pacemaker device (called an impulse generator, or IPG) implanted under the skin of the chest, below the collarbone. Once activated, the device sends continuous electrical pulses to the target areas in the brain, blocking the impulses that cause tremors.

Barry Simmers is a deep brain believer.

The Gypsum resident has lived in the valley for 30 years and is a ski instructor.

About 10 years ago, he began seeing early Parkinson’s disease symptoms — shaking in the little finger of his right hand, and it progressed from there.

A good friend from Philadelphia read and heard about Deep Brain Stimulation, so they looked into it.

“Believe it or not, it gave me a new lease on life. I am virtually tremor free with no side effects,” Simmers said.

He had the procedure done Jan. 7 of this year at the VA hospital in San Francisco. He’s a vet from the Vietnam War era.

“I was up to approximately 40 pills a day, but they controlled it,” Simmers said.

Simmers’ surgery took about seven hours and was painless before and after, he said.

Immediate improvement

Dr. Mariel Szapiel has that gift of making complicated things sound simpler than they really are, like Parkinson’s.

“We’re going to fix them by inserting these electrodes,” Szapiel said. “They add some electricity and … voila!”

Parkinson’s patients suffer from three hallmark symptoms:

Slow movement



Parkinson’s symptoms set in when parts of the brain lose dopamine.

Dopamine carries chemical and electric communications between the brain cells, a little like a computer, Szapiel said.

They insert two wires. One is thin and goes to the brain. Another goes under your scalp and connects to a battery and pacemaker-like device.

Once the system is up and running, the patient sees improvement immediately, usually an 80 percent improvement the day of the surgery, Szapiel said.

The device she installs does not destroy brain parts, she said.

“In the old days, with Michael Fox, they knocked out parts of the brain,” Szapiel said.

A few risks

It’s brain surgery, so there are a few calculated risks. You have about a 1 percent chance of brain bleeding resulting in stroke or death.

Szapiel said she understands the trepidation.

“If you’re in that 1 percent, you don’t care what happened to anyone else. It happened to you,” she said.

The benefits will hold up for at least 10 years, Szapiel said.

She has done between 300 and 400 in the 10 years she has been performing this procedure.

“It usually works like it’s supposed to,” Szapiel said.

Here’s how she knows.

“I’m the kind of doctor who loves to make her patients cry. When my patients are in recovery and they are not crying tears of joy, I have not done my job,” she said.

Tuneups with Triehaft

Neurologist Dr. Marc Triehaft works with Szapiel, doing what amounts to tune-ups for their Deep Brain Stimulation patients.

It’s like anything else; occasionally, it requires some adjusting, he said.

Every six or eight weeks, Simmers goes to Swedish Medical Center in Denver for calibrations, under the supervision of Sierra Farris.

“I cannot emphasize enough how important this decision has been to my life,” Simmers said. “Anyone who has this disease and doesn’t take the opportunity to have a procedure done, all I have to say is, ‘Think of the alternative, and you choose.’”

Tears of joy

Szapiel was in college when she discovered how brain cells talk to each other.

“I just fell in love. I remember reading that paragraph, and I decided to be a neurosurgeon,” Szapiel said.

This is her sub-specialty. Doctors go to medical school and do a residency for their specialty. Hers was neurosurgery, and it took six years. She spent another year on a fellowship for Deep Brain Stimulation.

“Ten years of school weren’t enough, so I decided to take on another one,” Szapiel said laughing.

She gets referrals through neurologists and primary-care providers. Patients sometimes find her and show up.

That’s fine, but they have to understand that it takes a village to do one of these.

“The most important thing they’re bringing is awareness. There are a lot of people who just don’t know about it. People tell me, ‘I’ve been dealing with this for five or 10 years.’ I wish I never had to hear that again,” Szapiel said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

Support Local Journalism

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User

Trending - News

See more