Parkinson’s patient worried about DBS surgery — but not about the team at OHSU

Dr. Kim Burchiel is an OHSU neurosurgeon and pioneer in deep brain stimulation surgery.
Dr. Kim Burchiel is an OHSU neurosurgeon and pioneer in deep brain stimulation surgery.

Marilee Thompson worried about having surgery to treat her Parkinson’s disease.

She knew the risks of deep brain stimulation surgery were low, she said, but “somebody makes up the statistics” on the few who have complications.

What she didn’t worry about was the surgical team at OHSU.

Thompson knew that Dr. Kim Burchiel, an OHSU neurosurgeon, had been doing deep brain stimulation for a long time. He was the first doctor in the U.S. to treat a patient with DBS, back in 1991, and he’s done it more than 1,000 times since then.

“I had great confidence in Dr. Burchiel because he was part of it so early on and had so much experience,” said Thompson, now 73.

Thompson was considering DBS because, a decade after her diagnosis with Parkinson’s, a progressive brain illness, she was tired of managing symptoms with medication alone. As medication took effect and wore off, she seesawed between having difficulty walking and having useless hands. Even timing a trip to the store became a chore.

Finally, the Beaverton resident thought: “I’m never going to be better than I am today. Can I live with that the rest of my life, maybe 20 or more years? And I just said, ‘No, I couldn’t.’”

* * *

Burchiel studied DBS in France under the neurosurgeon who developed it, Dr. Alim-Louis Benabid, then brought it to the U.S. DBS involves placing tiny electrodes in parts of the brain that control movement, then connecting them to a pacemaker-like device implanted in the chest. For 20 years, patients had to be awake during surgery because the surgeon needed responses from the patient to make sure the electrodes were in the right spots. 2011, Burchiel became a DBS pioneer in his own right by developing “asleep” DBS. He uses MRI and CT scans to place the electrodes while the patient is under general anesthesia. An OHSU study confirmed the new technique’s precision, and “results have been amazingly good,” Burchiel said. He loves seeing grateful patients after “we’ve effectively turned the clock back” on their symptoms.

“Being able to participate in the development of this procedure means everything to me,” he said. “This is my legacy, to a large degree.”

* * *

Burchiel doesn’t work alone, however. DBS patients at OHSU receive coordinated care from a team of specialists in the nationally recognized Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Program. The team includes experts in speech therapy, physical therapy, psychology and neurology. Dr. Matthew Brodsky, the medical director of OHSU’s DBS program, is a neurologist who has lectured on Parkinson’s around the world.

“Teamwork is absolutely crucial to this,” Burchiel said. “Other people can do the surgeries that we do. There are other good neurologists in the country. But the fact is, when you put it all together and you have a team that’s been working together for 20 or more years, you really have something special.”

* * *

Marilee Thompson decided to go ahead with DBS at OHSU seven years ago. She’s glad she did.

“I can do so much more and feel so much better,” she said. She still takes medication to manage symptoms, and she’s starting to think about moving from her two-story, 2,500-square-foot home. For now, Thompson, a widow, manages her home and quarter-acre yard with some hired help.

But she also just returned from a two-week trip to Africa — the only continent she hadn’t visited — to see wildlife in Uganda with her sister and the Audubon Society of Portland. “I did everything everyone else did,” she said, including managing steep terrain with only walking sticks.

DBS, she said, enables her to live how she wants. “My outlook on life is just really positive.”

Learn more about DBS, Dr. Kim Burchiel and the care at OHSU on our DBS website.

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