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Vancouver woman: ‘I feel like I get back my life again’

Deep brain stimulation leads to physical transformation for Parkinson’s patient

By , Columbian staff writer
Published: October 15, 2018, 6:01am
6 Photos
Akemi Noll plays tennis with her husband, Joe, at Vancouver Tennis Center. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 12 years ago and used a wheelchair for a majority of those years. She recently gained more mobility after a deep brain stimulation surgical treatment. She now plays tennis three times a week and wants to try skiing. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian
Akemi Noll plays tennis with her husband, Joe, at Vancouver Tennis Center. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 12 years ago and used a wheelchair for a majority of those years. She recently gained more mobility after a deep brain stimulation surgical treatment. She now plays tennis three times a week and wants to try skiing. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Akemi Noll scrambles around the third court inside the Vancouver Tennis Center, rallying with her husband, Joe.

Noll, a 52-year-old Vancouver resident, displays a backhand, then a forehand, making Joe chase after tennis balls. Noll is only a recreational tennis player, but her skills are beside the point.

Six months ago, Noll needed a wheelchair just to leave her house.

Now she plays tennis three times a week.

That physical transformation is because of a deep brain stimulation surgery Noll had at Oregon Health & Science University in May. The surgery eases the effects of Parkinson’s, a disease Noll was diagnosed with about 12 years ago.

“I don’t need to depend on anybody so I can be an individual,” Noll said.

“It’s like a light switch,” Joe Noll added.

The surgery was performed by Dr. Kim Burchiel, who pioneered deep brain stimulation, or DBS, in the U.S., conducting the first American DBS surgery at OHSU about 28 years ago. The surgery is now conducted in about 100 medical centers nationwide, according to OHSU.

Burchiel explained that Noll’s recovery from the surgery is toward the “home-run” end of the spectrum, though he said most of the thousands of DBS surgeries he’s performed provided beneficial results for patients.

The surgery helps with slowness and stiffness of movement and the tremors associated with Parkinson’s through pulses from tiny electrodes implanted in the brain. Burchiel explained that the central nervous system is built so that it can “regulate us to the degree that we can move about when we choose, and not move when we don’t want to.”

With Parkinson’s, those systems don’t operate the same. They’re out of balance, with too little movement or too much movement, something that can be exacerbated by Parkinson’s medication, which can cause writhing body movements. By using fine stimulating electrodes in the centers of the brain that create movement, DBS rebalances the systems.

“Some of the centers are widely overactive, and stimulating them seems to calm that down,” Burchiel said.

Noll’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s was so devastating that it took her more than a year to accept it and start taking her medication. Noll said that she “lost her 40s,” as she had to use a wheelchair whenever she left the house, and became extremely weak once her medication wore off.

Noll still has Parkinson’s — it’s without a cure — and takes her medication, but she’s now fairly active. She takes tennis lessons three times a week, and likes to walk her new Irish terrier puppy, Jake (she’s hoping to get another dog before next year). One reason Noll chose tennis is because it’s a sport she can keep playing as she ages.

“Maybe I can keep continuing when I get old and still can play and enjoy the life,” she said.

Joe Noll jokes that his wife has gotten so good at tennis that he needs to start taking lessons to compete. The wheelchair that Noll used before her surgery hasn’t been used since. Before Akemi Noll’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, she tried to take up skiing. Now she’s going to give it another shot.

“I feel good and fun,” Noll said. “I feel like I get back my life again.”

Wyatt Stayner: 360-735-4546; wyatt.stayner@columbian.com; twitter.com/WStayner

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