Tahoe woman undergoes brain surgery to stop tremors (w/video) | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe woman undergoes brain surgery to stop tremors (w/video)

Jonah M. Kessel / Tahoe Daily TribuneBonnie Lincoln looks down at a wig in her living room at Lake Tahoe. Lincoln had to shave her head when she underwent a surgical procedure known as deep brain stimulation to help combat Parkinson's/essential tremors.
Jonah M. Kessel |

LAKE TAHOE ” Last year Bonnie Lincoln couldn’t knit, sew or cook dinner.

She had to sell her knitting shop, the Wool Tree, in October 2006 because she couldn’t run it anymore.

She couldn’t sign her name on a friend’s birthday card, and was considering getting a stamp so the bank could recognize her signature.

But now her hands are back.

Lincoln has essential tremors, which started about 10 years ago. Most people associate her condition with Parkinson’s disease.

Essential tremors can occur at any age, and may affect as many as 14 percent of people over the age of 65, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Lincoln tried many different forms of medication to stop the shaking in her hands.

“The medications made me crazy,” Lincoln said. “I wasn’t sleeping, then I was sleeping too much ” they were mind-altering drugs.”

In one last-ditch effort, a doctor recommended that Bonnie try a procedure called deep-brain stimulation.

The procedure involved cutting open Lincoln’s head and implanting microelectrodes that inactivate parts of the brain that cause tremors.

“I prayed about it, because it’s what I needed to do,” Lincoln said. “I asked God to let me know if I should do this.”

Her husband, Robert, said he was afraid of his wife undergoing the surgery, but after evaluating her quality of life, knew it was the right decision.

“It didn’t take long to see where her quality of life was headed if this didn’t work,” he said.

Before the surgery, Lincoln had lost the ability to do simple tasks people take for granted.

“(Robert) had to do everything around the house,” Bonnie said. “He had to serve dinner because food would be all over the place.”

Her friends encouraged her to take her life back.

“I couldn’t see a reason why she shouldn’t do it,” said Cathy Huffman, a member of Bonnie’s quilting group. “To lose her passion would be horrible.”

Lincoln is an avid knitter and quilter, and is a member of a knitting guild, and a quilting group that meets at Fabrics Unlimited. She continued to attend the groups, even though the tremors prevented her from participating in certain tasks.

Huffman said other members of the quilting group would help Lincoln when she needed it.

It wasn’t just cutting fabric squares she needed help with. Andee Wetenkamp had to sign Lincoln’s name to Sheri Lilienthal’s birthday card, too.

Because she couldn’t sign her own name to credit card receipts or checks, Lincoln debated acquiring a stamp that would serve as her signature.

“You just don’t realize everything you need your hands for,” Huffman said.

Once Lincoln decided to pursue treatment, she and her husband made nine trips to Stanford’s neurosurgery department, three of them for the procedure itself.

From September through January, Lincoln had to undergo interviews and tests to make sure she was a good candidate for the surgery. The test she was most nervous about was the allergy test, because she’s had many allergic reactions in her life.

They put all sorts of different metals, and things that were going to be used in the procedure, on her arm for three days. Luckily no reactions occurred, so she could proceed.

She was also interviewed by nine different doctors who conducted three separate interviews in groups of three to see if her health and mental state made her a good candidate for the procedure.

During the long pre-procedure process, Lincoln’s friends and family were able to lighten the mood and help her through.

The women at the quilt group teased her that she was getting her “smart chip,” and to ask the doctors if they could get a group rate for the quilters.

“Laughter pulled her through this,” Huffman said. “It is the best medicine.”

On Feb. 1, Lincoln began the first of three life-altering phases.

The first phase of procedure, installing eight microelectrodes into her brain, lasted six hours, and Lincoln had to stay awake during the procedure while they asked her questions.

She still remembers the sound of the drill when they opened up her head.

“I heard it, I knew what it was, and the best thing I could do was grab somebody’s hand,” Lincoln said.

The surgeons put microelectrodes in both sides of her brain because both the left and right lobes are involved in her tremors.

Her head had to be shaved for the surgery, and her support system stepped in to help her out.

The knitting guild made Lincoln seven hats to keep her head warm, and the women at First Baptist Church chipped in and bought her a wig in Carson City.

“She has good hair days, bad hair days and no hair days.” Robert Lincoln said as he teased his wife.

A few weeks later, Lincoln went in for the second ” and most painful ” phase. Surgeons took the microelectrodes and ran them behind her right ear to a neurostimulator, similar to a cardiac pacemaker, in Lincoln’s chest. The surgery lasted five hours, and they had to shove the wires between the skin and her muscle tissue.

The surgeons had to wait for the swelling to go down before they could activate the device.

Lincoln’s neurostimulator was turned on March 3, and she has been doing well ever since.

“It’s a miracle,” she said. “This has changed my life.”

To turn herself “on,” Lincoln has a remote control she holds directly over the box in her chest. When she hits the “on” button, it makes a high-pitched ping. Baxter, the Lincoln’s dog, doesn’t like the sound at all.

“The first time he heard it, he ran away,” Robert Lincoln said.

As soon as the ping sounds, she feels tingling in her arms, much like the feeling one has when a limb falls asleep. Then Lincoln’s tremors subside, and she can move her arms and hands normally.

Her friends couldn’t believe how quickly Lincoln regained her normal life.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” Wetenkamp said, who just months early had to sign cards for Lincoln. “It’s a phenomenal procedure.”

Every night, Lincoln turns the device off to save her battery, which lasts for five to seven years.

The only health restrictions Lincoln has is she can’t be around high-voltage equipment. She can’t have an MRI, and she can’t go through airport security devices, Robert said.

In six months Bonnie will go back for a check up, but now she’s making up for lost time by knitting, sewing and cooking again.

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