[Editor's Note: On June 6, 2017, Anne Shabason, an artist, hospice educator, and mother of two from Bolton, Ontario, a small town about 30 miles outside of Toronto, underwent Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat her Parkinson's disease. The FDA approved DBS for Parkinson's disease in 2002. Although it's shown to be safe and effective, agreeing to invasive brain surgery is no easy decision, even when you have your family and one of North America's premier neurosurgeons at your side.
Here, with support from Stan, her husband of the past 40 years, Anne talks about her life before Parkinson's, what the disease took away, and what she got back because of DBS. As told to writer Heather R. Johnson.]
I was an artist.
I worked in mixed media, Papier-mâché, and collage, inspired by dreams, birds, mystery. I had gallery shows and participated in studio tours.
Educated in thanatology, I worked in hospice care as a volunteer and education director for Hospice Caledon, an organization that supports people facing life-limiting illness and grief.
I trained volunteers who helped people through their transition.
Parkinson's disease changed all that.
My hands and my head were not coordinating, so it was impossible to do my art.
It started as a twitch in my leg. During a hospice workshop, my right leg started vibrating in a way I hadn't experienced before. I told a friend, "This can't be good."
Over the next year, my right foot vibrated more and more. I could not sleep well. In my dreams people lurked in corners, in dark places, and behind castle doors. I knew they were there and couldn't avoid the ambush. I shrieked and woke everyone in the house.
An anxiety attack—something I had also never experienced before—came next.
During a class I was teaching, my mouth got so dry, I couldn't speak. I stood in front of the class for three or four minutes, unable to continue. I pushed through and finished the class. That's when I realized this was more than jiggling legs.
That's when I went to see a doctor.
My first doctor, when I suggested it might be Parkinson's, didn't believe me. She sent me to a neurologist who told me I had to meditate more and calm myself.
A friend from hospice told me to phone the Toronto Western Hospital Movement Disorders Clinic. In January 2010, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
The doctor, a fellow, got all my stats and asked a lot of questions. He was so excited he knew what it was, he exclaimed, "You've got Parkinson's!" like it was the best thing ever. I must say, that wasn't the best news, but at least I finally had a diagnosis.
I could choose whether to take medication or not. The doctor said, "If Parkinson's is compromising your lifestyle, you should consider taking levodopa."
"Well I can't run my classes, I can't do my art, so it's compromising me," I said. And my health was going downhill. The shaking—my whole body moved—sleeping was horrible. Two to four hours max a night was usual. I had terrible anxiety and panic attacks and had to quit work.
So I started taking levodopa. It's taken in a four-hour cycle, but the medication didn't last the full time. I developed dyskenisia, a side effect of the medication that made me experience uncontrolled, involuntary movements. I was edgy, irritable, and focused on my watch like a drug addict. I'd lie on the couch, feel crummy and tired, and wait.
The medication cycle restricted where I could go. Fearing the "off" period, I avoided interaction with lifelong friends, which increased my feeling of social isolation. They would come over and cook with me and read to me sometimes, and that was fine, as long as it was during an "on" period.
There was incontinence, constipation, and fatigue.
I lost fine motor skills, like writing. And painting. My hands and my head were not coordinating, so it was impossible to do my art.
It was a terrible time.
The worst symptoms—what pushed me to consider DBS—were the symptoms no one could see. The anxiety and depression were so bad, the sleeplessness, not eating.
I projected a lot of my discomforts onto Stan. I reacted so badly to him. I actually separated from him briefly on two separate occasions and lived in a separate space—a self-imposed isolation. There wasn't anything he could do to help me really except sit back and watch.
I tried alternative therapies—a naturopath, an osteopath, a reflexologist and a Chinese medicine practitioner—but nothing seemed to help.
I felt like I was dying. Certain parts of my life were being taken away from me. I was a perfectionist, and I felt imperfect. It was a horrible feeling, to not be in control of myself.
The DBS Decision
I was familiar with DBS, a procedure that involves a neurosurgeon drilling small holes into your skull and implanting electrical leads deep in your brain to modify neural activity, reducing involuntary movements.
But I was convinced I'd never do it. I was brought up in a family that believed 'doctors make you sick and hospitals kill you.'
I worried the room wouldn't be sterile. Someone's cutting into your brain, you don't know what's going to happen. They're putting things in your body. I didn't want to risk possible infection.
And my doctor said he couldn't promise he would actually do the operation. It might be a fellow, but he'd be in the background in case anything went wrong. I wasn't comfortable with that arrangement.
When filmmakers Taryn Southern and Elena Gaby decided to make a documentary about people whose lives were changed by cutting-edge brain implants--and I agreed to participate—my doctor said he would for sure do the operation. They couldn't risk anything happening on the operating table on camera, so most of my fears went away.
My family supported the decision. My mother had trigeminal neuralgia, which is a very painful facial condition. She also had a stroke and what we now believe to be Parkinson's. My father, a retired dentist, managed her care and didn't give her the opportunity to see a specialist.
I felt them running the knife across my scalp, and drilling two holes in my head, but only as pressure, not pain.
When we were talking about DBS, my son, Joseph, said, "How can you not do this, for the sake of your family? Because if you don't, you'll end up like Grandma, who, for the last few years of her life, just lay on a couch because she didn't get any kind of outside help. If you even have a chance to improve your life or give yourself five extra years, why wouldn't you do that, for our sake? Are we not worth that?"
That talk really affected me, and I realized I had to try. Even though it was difficult, I had to be brave for my family.
Surgery, Recovery, and Tweaking
You have to be awake for part of the procedure—I was awake enough that my subconscious could hear, because they had to know how far to insert the electrodes. DBS targets the troublemaking areas of the brain. There's a one millimeter difference between success and failure.
I felt them running the knife across my scalp, and drilling two holes in my head, but only as pressure, not pain.
Once they were inside, they asked me to move parts of my body to see whether the right neurons were activated.
They put me to sleep to put a battery-powered neurostimulator in my chest. A wire that runs behind my ear and down my neck connects the electrodes in my brain to the battery pack. The neurostimulator creates electric pulses 24 hours a day.
I was moving around almost immediately after surgery. Recovery from the stitches took a few weeks, but everything else took a lot longer.
I couldn't read. My motor skills were still impaired, and my brain and my hands weren't yet linked up. I needed the device to be programmed and tweaked. Until that happened, I needed help.
The depression and anxiety, though, went away almost immediately. From that perspective, it was like I never had Parkinson's. I was so happy.
When they calibrated the electrodes, they adjusted how much electrical current goes to any one of four contact points on the left and right sides of the brain. If they increased it too much, a leg would start shaking, a foot would start cramping, or my tongue would feel thicker. It took a while to get it calibrated correctly to control the symptoms.
First it was five sessions in five weeks, then once a month, then every three months. Now I visit every six months. As the disease progresses, they have the ability to keep making adjustments. (DBS controls the symptoms, but it doesn't cure the disease.)
Once they got the calibration right, my motor skills improved. I could walk without shuffling. My muscles weren't stiff and aching, and the dyskinesia disappeared. But if I turn off the device, my symptoms return almost immediately.
Some days I have more fatigue than others, and sometimes my brain doesn't click. And my voice got softer – that's a common side effect of this operation. But I'm doing so much better than before.
I have a quality of life I didn't have before. Before COVID-19 hit, Stan and I traveled, went to concerts, movies, galleries, and spent time with our growing family.
Anne in her home studio with her art, 2019.
I cut back the levodopa from seven-and-a-half pills a day to two-and-a-half. I often forget to take my medication until I realize I'm feeling tired or anxious.
Best of all, my motivation and creative ability have clicked in.
I am an artist—again.
I'm painting every day. It's what is keeping me sane. It's my saving grace.
I'm not perfect. But I am Anne. Again.
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."