Rick Freehafer first experienced involuntary tremors as a teenager. His high school girlfriend and wife Beth, who was 37 years old, took her husband’s tremors calmly. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)
“I didn’t pay too much attention to it because my father had it and so did my sister,” Rick said. Later two of his three daughters would develop the disease. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)
R. Ross Coleman, MD, left, a movement disorder neurologist, and Hayden Boyce, MD, a neurosurgeon found Rick as candidates for deep brain stimulation. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)
Doctors implant a pacemaker-like device into the patient and then connect the device with tiny wires that lead to trembling areas in the brain. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)
Rick controls the stimulator’s impulses with his iPhone. “My right hand is now completely free from any tremor,” he said. “All I can say is I wish I had done this years ago.” (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)
Rick’s granddaughter Viola enjoys a snack from a bowl Rick made in his woodworking workshop. With his tremors under control, he can use his lathe again. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)
Rick also makes custom ink pens in his shop. He made pens for his two favorite doctors. “I keep my pen in my office,” said Dr. Coleman. “It’s pretty special.” (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)
Rick Freehafer sat wide awake in the operating room while two surgeons from Spectrum Health inserted a series of thin wires into his brain.
The date: August 9, 2019.
The space: Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
Freehafer, 58, of Jenison, Michigan, would remember those moments forever.
It is the day when his life has finally changed.
“I just lived with it”
Freehafer first noticed the tremors in high school.
His hands trembled a little, especially when he was feeling anxious or stressed. The involuntary tremors sometimes spread to his head and neck, affecting his facial muscles and speech.
“I didn’t pay much attention to it because my father had it and so did my sister,” said Freehafer.
Later two of his three daughters would develop the disease.
When Freehafer’s father took a test for Parkinson’s, the test results were negative. Doctors listed the tremors. return essential tremor, a slowly progressive movement disorder that usually affects people aged 65 and over.
However, Freehafer developed the disease at an incredibly young age.
During his school days, he took high blood pressure medication to relieve the tremors, but the medication only made his asthma worse.
“I haven’t taken anything for it from high school until last year,” Freehafer said. “I’ve only lived with the tremor.”
As an adult, he would sometimes drink a dash of bourbon to relieve the tremors.
“But you know, there are too many people who become alcoholics that way – through self-medication,” he said.
Over the years he has just learned to take things calmly.
Whenever he felt tremors in his hands or muscles in his face during dinner – his tongue and jaw trembled – he would joke to make things less uncomfortable for his companions.
His 37-year-old wife Beth also took her husband’s tremors calmly.
The two became high school sweethearts at the age of 17.
“Rick’s tremors weren’t that noticeable in high school,” Beth said. “And somehow I was used to that. My grandpa and brother also had tremors. It wasn’t a big deal back then, but it got bad so quickly. “
The search for solutions
Not long ago, Freehafer found out about a process called Deep brain stimulation. He heard about it at Grand Valley State University, where he works in the IT department.
“A professor told me about it,” he said.
Then he asked his doctor what a referral to Dr. Boyce who, in turn, worked with Dr. Coleman was in touch.
“They built a whole team around me: a neurosurgeon, a neurologist, physiotherapist, occupational therapist and speech therapist – even a neuropsychologist to make sure I was a good candidate for the operation,” said Freehafer. “You were a gift from God.”
After two days of examinations and consultations with the team, the doctors thought Freehafer was a good candidate for deep brain stimulation.
He began to acquire knowledge of the procedure and how to use it to treat tremors when the medicine is not enough.
Doctors implant a pacemaker-like device into the patient and then connect the device with tiny wires that lead them to trembling areas in the brain.
The device sends out electrical impulses that disrupt the abnormal brain signals that caused the tremors, Dr. Coleman.
“The wires are about the size of spaghetti noodles,” he said. “We insert it through a nickel-sized hole in the patient’s skull and then wake the patient up so he can help us guide us to exactly the right place in the brain.”
As they work, doctors listen to the sounds of electrical impulses to guide their work.
“It sounds like rain on a tin roof,” said Dr. Coleman. “We listen to the rhythm and when we hear the right rhythm, we put in the (deep brain stimulation) line.”
During the procedure, doctors will ask the patient to answer a few questions, or maybe even do a task or two, to see how the electrodes affect the brain.
In Freehafer’s case, they had him write his name, draw some spirals, and pretend he was eating and drinking from a cup.
“He also brought a board and screwdriver into the operating room so we could test that he could do the same things as he would at work,” said Dr. Coleman.
“The operation takes about four hours for both hemispheres,” said Dr. Boyce. “And Rick was awake when we started testing – about an hour on each side.”
And then it happened.
“I will never forget the moment in which you switched on the electrical impulses,” said Freehafer. “The trembling stopped immediately. I must have started crying because I heard Dr. Call Boyce: ‘No crying in the operating room’. “
Dr. Boyce smiled.
“Yeah, that sounds like me,” he said. “We joke around in the operating room to reduce fears.”
Doctors did not leave Freehafer’s pulse generator on immediately after the operation. They had to wait for the brain to heal and for the swelling to subside.
“Believe it or not, I went home the next day after the operation,” said Freehafer. “The generator was switched on about a month later, on September 4th. Then I had to go about once a month to have the doctors fine-tune the impulses until they were just right. “
He can expect about a 70% improvement in his tremors, said Dr. Coleman.
“Results vary depending on the type of tremor a patient has, but it is not a cure,” said Dr. Coleman. “Our goal is to improve the quality of life and make everyday life easier.”
The deep brain stimulation wires are lifelong in Freehafer’s brain.
The pulse generator in his chest needs new batteries every three to five years. This requires a simple outpatient procedure.
“It will take six to nine months, I was told, for the frequencies on the electrodes to be set just right,” said Freehafer. “My right hand is now completely free from any tremor. All I can say is I wish I had done this years ago.
“Now I’m just wondering who was the first to find out that putting electricity in the brain could do this – and who was the first to say, ‘Hey, make me,'” he laughed.
Beth snuggled up next to her husband when he talked about his experience.
“The change has been amazing,” she said. “Rick can do so many things now that he couldn’t do before, such as: B. Put toothpaste on his toothbrush or eat soup. And now I have to do a lot less laundry. “
As a thank you, Freehafer renewed a hobby: woodworking on the lathe.
From olive wood for one and zebra wood for the other, he made pens for his two favorite doctors.
“I keep my pen in my office,” said Dr. Coleman. “It’s pretty special.”
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