Medical Advances Help Iowa Man Find Steady Hands

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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) – Deep brain stimulation has been part of medical practice for two decades, but was once an inaccurate procedure accompanied by downfalls. Today, remarkably improved technology, including adjustable apps on the patient’s handheld device, has opened new doors.

Merlin Jones, a resident of Pottawattamie County, Iowa, is among those getting a new lease on life thanks to DBS.

For 50 years, after a childhood meningitis attack, through a life of tough sports, including mixed martial arts and farming, essential tremors were a regularly crippling factor in Jones’ life.

“Over the past ten years, it got significantly worse, it was to the point where it was debilitating,” Jones said. “It affected every aspect of my life, (wife Sharon) had to cut my meat, there were meals where half of my wife had to feed me. Just the everyday things you take for granted.

Other treatments were marginally helpful. Then Dr. Melinda Burnett and neurosurgeon Dr. Craig Robb of the CHI Neurological Institute at Immanuel Medical Center came up with deep brain stimulation, a kind of electrical pacemaker for the brain, which has come light years in precision treatment to the course of the last decade.

“Most people who undergo deep brain stimulation are naturally very scared at first,” Burnett said. “But the vast majority of them say it was worth having brain surgery to relieve their tremors. It really goes back in time, it gives them independence. It really empowered (Jones) doing what he has to do to live his life so well.

Jones liked the idea, but before undergoing the procedure he contracted Covid-19.

“I only realized after I recovered from Covid how badly I wanted it,” Jones said. “Even just the promise, that you can pick things up, that you can cut vegetables that you can eat without using a serving spoon. And the level of frustration…”

So they implanted wires in his brain to stimulate the precise location to stop his tremors. Instantly, Merlin’s life changed.

“Electrical wires go up under the skin of the neck and under the skin of the scalp into the brain through two holes in the skull,” Burnett said. “It’s interesting because we found that by putting electricity through these wires, we can essentially disable one of the areas of the brain that sends tremors from the brain to the hands.”

“After the operation they gave me a cup of juice and I took it in my good hand because they said I would be able to do it,” Jones said tearfully. “I took this polystyrene cup and was able to drink (without spilling), the first time in probably 25 years.”

Burnett said his team is able to use the multimedia aspects of advanced technology to help more people like Jones.

“(Now we can) program people remotely,” she said. “Before, people had to come to my office… where I was fine-tuning their stimulator. (But) now we can do it remotely through Smart Pad technologies. It’s really opened up that as an option for people who live in places like western Nebraska, rural areas that might not have a neurology office down the street and it’s really kind of a revolution in how many people can get this technology option for tremors.

Jones had surgery in March and feels like he’s gotten better every day.

“The tremors were a blessing in many ways,” he said. “Because I started looking at people who have problems, whatever their problem was, in a different way. In my life (the tremors) were debilitating, but someone who has arthritis, or he he is missing a hand, and how he has to adapt.

“Given this second chance to be able to control my body,” Jones added. “Maybe I can play the piano again, or the guitar, or the organ, I mean the world has opened up to me again, all those things that I had to let go of, because that the tremors wouldn’t let me do them, and now maybe I can.

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