Deep brain stimulation surgery helps Parkinson’s patient get her life back

DBS helped Holly Cooper return to the boxing gym, work out regularly.

Holly Cooper was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015. One day, Holly, who also is a breast cancer survivor, noticed a small tremor in her thumb. Over time, the tremor gradually became more debilitating. Daily tasks like walking and eating became a struggle.

“I was in quicksand, going down,” Holly said. “Your world gets smaller instantly, physically and mentally.”

Following her diagnosis, Holly spent much of the next six years on medication to help alleviate some of the symptoms. While the medications allowed her to accomplish many of the tasks she had once taken for granted, they also came with side effects, including a severe loss of appetite. Holly started to drop weight, which only made her condition more challenging.

“I was taking medicine every two hours,” Holly said. “I knew when those two hours were up because the tremors would start coming back. I scheduled my entire life in two-hour increments.”

Justin T. Phillips, M.D., neurologist with Norton Neuroscience Institute, believed Holly could be a good candidate for deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery. He consulted with Abigail J. Rao, M.D., neurosurgeon, Norton Neuroscience Institute.

What is DBS?

Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease in which parts of the brain start to function suboptimally, disrupting the chemistry and circuitry of the brain. Deep brain stimulation surgery involves implanting wires to each side of the brain, which are connected to an implanted device in the chest. The device then generates electrical pulses that change the movement circuitry of the brain, helping regulate control over movement.

The surgery typically is recommended for those in the moderate stage of the disease who experience movement symptoms like tremors and stiffness.

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“DBS helps to return the patient to smoother, more normal movements, less slowness and less excessive movements that can develop as a side effect or consequence of long-term medication use,” Dr. Rao said. “The surgery isn’t for everyone, but we see very positive outcomes.”

Dr. Rao uses a newer DBS surgery technique in which the patient, instead of being awake, is fully anesthetized. In fact, she performed Louisville’s first “asleep” DBS surgery on a patient with Parkinson’s disease in late 2018. This method has many benefits, including for patients who aren’t comfortable with the idea of being awake during brain surgery.

Dr. Phillips, Dr. Rao and the Norton Neuroscience Institute movement disorders team determined Holly was indeed a good candidate for DBS, though Holly was a little hesitant at first.

“I had some reservations,” she said. “But it was the best decision I could have made.”

Getting back to life

Holly underwent the surgery in late October 2021 at Norton Brownsboro Hospital. She went home the next day.

“Dr. Rao did an excellent job,” Holly said. “Brain surgery was much easier than getting a double mastectomy.”

In early November, about two weeks after the surgery, Dr. Phillips and his team turned on the device. With the brain stimulation, Holly’s condition significantly improved.

“I can gush on and on about how marvelous it was to leave that appointment standing tall,” Holly said. “My appetite came back. My inner angst was gone.”

Nearly nine months after having DBS surgery, Holly said she feels like a completely different person. She’s off all her Parkinson’s medications and is showing very few symptoms of the disease. Holly has regained weight, a huge goal for her. Now, she spends time volunteering at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens in Crestwood, Kentucky, but when she’s not planting and weeding, she’s hitting the boxing gym several times a week.

“Before, I was punching like a kitten — I just couldn’t punch at all,” Holly said. “Now I’m back up to my fighting weight. I now just need to work on my muscles.”

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