Living Without Tremors

Dr. Tao Xie and Patrick O'Brien

The joke in Patrick O’Brien’s house was that if his wife was angry she’d make soup for dinner, because his tremors made it nearly impossible for O’Brien to avoid spills. These days, however, soup is no longer a dangerous weapon for the south suburban police officer/paramedic.

"This surgery has been life-changing for me."

In January 2013, O’Brien, 43, had deep brain stimulation (DBS), a surgical treatment for patients with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, dystonia or, as in O’Brien’s case, essential tremor. “Most of the outcomes are phenomenal,” said neurologist Tao Xie, MD, PhD, medical director of the movement disorder program. “During the procedure we can immediately see the tremors decreasing.”

DBS involves placing an electrode in the brain to deliver high-frequency electrical stimulation to control movements.

Over the past few years, O’Brien’s quality of life had been increasingly affected by the shaking in his hands and arms. “It got so bad at work that when I was fingerprinting offenders, they thought I was afraid,” O’Brien said with a chuckle. “And when I was talking to victims, they’d ask me why I was so nervous.”

Two years ago, he was diagnosed by a neurologist at a local hospital and started taking medications, but they caused serious side effects. In November, O’Brien and his wife heard University of Chicago Medicine neurosurgeon Peter Warnke, MD, director of stereotactic and functional surgery, and Xie speak about pharmacological and surgical treatments for movement disorders. O’Brien made an appointment to meet with both physicians.

Dr. Tao Xie and Patrick O'Brien

“These guys spoke to me in a way that really boosted my confidence and made me believe that they’re among the best at what they do,” O’Brien said. “They’re personable, easy to talk to, and even today they answer every question before I walk out the door. They continue to get grants to do research and move things forward within Parkinson’s and essential tremor so they know what’s out there.”

The Center for Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders combines clinical expertise with state-of-the-art therapies and groundbreaking research. Experts in neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, otolaryngology, and rehabilitation treat a variety of movement disorders -- including Parkinson’s disease, tremor, dystonia and chorea -- with exercise, medication, botulinum toxin injection and DBS.

Like O’Brien, many patients turn to the center, dedicated as a Center for Advanced Research by the American Parkinson Disease Association, after seeking help elsewhere.

“I can tie my shoes and I can eat a hamburger loaded with toppings without anything spilling out,” said O’Brien proudly. “This surgery has been life-changing for me.”

November 2013

Fall 2013 cover of Imagine magazine

This story originally ran in the Fall 2013 issue of Imagine, a quarterly magazine published by the University of Chicago Medicine.
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