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Health Information Taking Aim

Taking Aim at Parkinson’s Disease: One Man Fights Back

William Bettis, age 55, keeps a pair of boxing gloves hanging from his office wall. Bettis was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 17 years ago, and these gloves remind him to keep fighting this potentially disabling disease.

When he was in his late 30s, Bettis’ left pinky finger began to shake. His doctor at the time chalked it up to too much caffeine. But the small tremor became worse. Eventually, Bettis came to Rush University Medical Center where Cynthia Comella, MD, a movement disorders specialist, identified his problem: Parkinson’s disease.

Bettis found out everything he could about his condition and learned that the disease was progressive and severely debilitating. “I didn’t want to end up in a wheelchair,” he says.

As Bettis began treatment with medications, including levodopa, he committed to maintaining an active lifestyle and staying one step ahead of the disease. He continued working as a general manager of a metal-cutting firm, playing golf and traveling regularly.

But eventually, the 12 pills he took daily to alleviate his stiffness and tremors became less effective and side effects began to take their toll, common problems among those who have Parkinson’s disease. He would wake up with his toes curled, which made walking extremely difficult. His golf game began to suffer because he began to lose his balance while taking a swing. And at work, the anxiety of public speaking triggered his tremors.

Restoring Quality of Life

Bettis did not want to live this way, so he turned to a procedure he had read about and discussed with Comella: deep brain stimulation (DBS). After meeting with two physicians at Rush who are leaders in performing and researching DBS — movement disorders specialist Leo Verhagen, MD, PhD, and neurosurgeon Roy Bakay, MD — Bettis decided to undergo the procedure.

With DBS, doctors place electrodes in the brain that send out continuous, low-voltage pulses. The electronic pulses block the miscommunication between neurons — caused by low dopamine levels — that result in Parkinson’s symptoms. A week later, doctors implant a battery pack, or neurostimulator, near the patient’s collarbone and connect it to a thin wire that leads to the electrodes. The settings of the device can be turned on and off and are tweaked by doctors over a period of weeks to months to ensure patients get the maximum benefit of the therapy.

“My life has improved dramatically since starting DBS,” Bettis says. “My toes don’t curl up as they did, I take only three pills a day, and I can get up without feeling rigid and tight. And my golf game is definitely better.”

DBS isn’t a cure. But it buys patients like Bettis time to do the things they love and doctors time to find lasting solutions to Parkinson’s disease. “DBS is a great addition to our more conservative treatment options — and it is a reversible procedure,” Verhagen says. “Therefore, when a better treatment — or a cure — is available, patients will be able to take full advantage of those new opportunities as well.”

Neurological Care at Rush

The neuroscience program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, is considered among the nation’s best. From using deep brain stimulation to eliminate the tremors of Parkinson’s and other movement disorders to applying minimally invasive approaches to treating the spine and brain, experts at Rush are helping to revolutionize care for patients at Rush and around the world.

At Rush, our team is on the leading edge of advances in medicine, whether it’s a new minimally invasive technique or a novel drug. Because Rush is an academic medical center, our patients benefit from all of the latest innovations, including some that are unavailable anywhere else in the world.

For more information about care for neurological conditions visit the Neurological Care home page.

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Taking Aim

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