Bill Kiehl’s twin girls were babies when a doctor told him that the culprit behind the involuntary twitching movement in his left hand was early onset Parkinson’s disease. His wife, Holly, remembers the moment 11 years ago like it happened yesterday.
“The girls were still in their stroller. I was feeding them Cheerios, in shock,” she says.
In the months and years that followed, Bill, an engineer for an aerospace company that builds telescopes, took 33 doses of medications a day. “We both used to laugh about it,” says Holly. “You would never have to remind him to take his pills because his body prompted him—it served as his own little alarm clock.” She adds, “Bill’s positive attitude and excellent sense of humor really helped us through that difficult period.”
Even so, finding the right dosage and combination of medications was a challenge. “When you take the pills, it increases the dopamine level in your brain. When you are overdosed, you get dyskinesia and when you are underdosed, you get the tremors,” Bill explains. “And there’s not much of a gap between being overdosed or underdosed, so every three hours I’d have to take drugs.”
Despite all the prescriptions, Bill’s abilities weakened over time. Driving a car was impossible some days. It seemed as if his body was never still. The constant motion brought on overwhelming fatigue and caused Bill to gradually drop 50 pounds. In fact, he moved so much, he would have to lie down on his office floor to keep from passing out.
When a doctor suggested that Bill consider surgery for deep brain stimulation (DBS), he was hesitant. The risks seemed so high. Though he was assured there was a low risk of stroke and infection in the brain, Bill didn’t like the odds. “With three little kids at home, why take the chance?” Bill remembers thinking.
Eventually, though, he missed more days of work, and it was getting harder for him to drive. “I thought to myself, ‘I think it’s time,’ ” Bill says. Adds Holly, “The choice became obvious.”
Benefits of DBS
Bill turned to Dr. John McVicker, who is a neurosurgeon at UCHealth Colorado Springs’ Memorial Hospital and the most experienced DBS surgeon in Colorado.
DBS therapy uses a small, pacemaker-like device implanted under the skin in the chest to send electronic signals through a thin wire to the subthalamic nucleus deep in the center of the brain, a raisin-sized relay station that helps activate and control movement.
During Bill’s procedure, McVicker used a micro-electrode, which is made of glass-encased tungsten and tapers down to a point 10 microns wide (one one-hundredth the size of a human hair) to target the exact spot in the brain—the “sweet spot,” as McVicker calls it— before inserting the permanent electrode.
Bill’s surgery was successful. Today, he takes no medication and has only mild, nearly unnoticeable tremors. “Had the surgery not been available, I would have had to leave work,” Bill says.
Instead, he drives to work every weekday and has taken active vacations with his wife and their children, Adam, Paris and Sophie, to Europe, Yellowstone, Yosemite and the West Coast. They’re all sweet spots to Bill and his family. Every one.