Patient Story - A New Outlook on Life
For Robert Shipp, deep brain stimulation brings self-sufficiency and an end to embarrassment
“I was unable to write my name for probably seven or eight years,” Robert Shipp recalls. With handwriting “like an EKG” thanks to severe tremors, he relied on his wife or daughter to write things for him. At work, he used a rubber stamp to sign his name.
“It was embarrassing,” he says. Eating out meant having to ask for his drink with a lid and straw. “I was unable to use a knife and fork. I only ate things I could eat with a spoon, because the shaking was so bad.”
His doctor had been telling him for a while that he needed an implant-based treatment known as deep brain stimulation. But Shipp was apprehensive, wondering what it would be like to undergo surgery and have leads implanted in his brain. So for years, he relied on medications to keep the tremors in check.
Eventually his medication dosage was dialed up as high as it could get, and he slept much of the time. He felt trapped by the tremors, which continued to worsen. Finally, at age 69, he decided to go to Duke Hospitals for deep brain stimulation.
Turning off the tremors
“When I was on the operating table, they hooked my battery up and told me to sign my name,” Shipp remembers. “And I wrote my name just like I did eight years before. Everyone was amazed.”
Just like that, everything was back to normal. Handling a fork and knife was as natural as could be. He could drink without a lid. And he could once again set his own golf ball on the tee.
Today, Shipp plays golf regularly at his home in Harkers Island, North Carolina, enjoying the retirement lifestyle he had always wanted.
“It’s really given me a new outlook,” he says. “It’s changed my life.”
Deep brain stimulation uses electronic pulses to block parts of the brain from sending the signals that cause tremors related to Parkinson’s Disease, Essential Tremor and dystonia. It requires two surgical procedures. In the first procedure, the surgeon implants thin wires that run from the chest to the specific area of the brain that is causing tremors. In the second procedure (about a week later), the surgeon hooks up these wires to a battery pack that is implanted in the chest.
Shipp, whose surgeries were performed by Dr. Nandan Lad, says the experience wasn’t nearly as frightening as he had feared. His nervousness began to dissipate during his very first consultation with Physician Assistant Beth Parente: “Beth was great because she explained everything. She didn’t leave anything out, and she explained it on my level.”
The first procedure (to implant the leads) lasted a couple of hours, and Shipp was able to return home the next day. The second procedure (to implant the battery pack) was outpatient, so he went straight home afterward.
Looking back, he says, “I can’t say enough about the people at Duke. Dr. Lad is exceptional. I did not feel scared at all the whole time!”
Specialists in movement disorders typically recommend deep brain stimulation when medications no longer alleviate symptoms and tremors are so severe that they interfere with daily activities. Most tremors gradually worsen over time; although deep brain stimulation does not address the root cause of the disorder, the therapy is effective at controlling the symptoms and reducing a patient’s reliance on medications.
“This battery and these leads that they’ve put in my brain are ‘fooling’ the tremors. It’s fantastic. Anybody with tremors is embarrassed about the shaking, and this gets you past the embarrassment,” says Shipp, adding that he’s happy to share his story with others. He understands how intimidating the idea of surgery can be, but he also knows firsthand what a difference it makes.
“I’ve had several people with tremors come to me, and I tell them it’s a life changing experience,” Shipp says. “I’ll actually cut my battery off and show them how I shake. I have to get the other person to cut it back on, because I’m shaking so bad I can’t do it myself.”
Once the battery is back on and the shaking has stopped, he’s ready for a golf game.