"My STEM-Based Battle Against Parkinson's Disease": Guest Blogger Dan King Tells Us, "Never Give Up!"

RE@L-logo_Corp_TM_New-Tag_8-15-17_CMYKfall-leaves-clipart-free-6Stems are critical to all living things! Vegetables have them. So do apples which are now ready to eat on the apple trees!

Autumn’s beautiful tree leaves have stems too. Their many colors light up the months before winter comes.

diagram-of-the-brain-stemSo do we have stems? Yes, indeed! But that very different kind of stem is in our head. It’s called a brain-stem. It “supports” our cortical brain and coordinates it for our many tasks of thinking and moving about. The brain also delivers what we know as pain and disabilities. Wikipedia tells us that the “brain stem controls the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body. It also controls basic body functions such as breathing, swallowing, heart rate, blood pressure, consciousness, and whether one is awake or sleepy.” We couldn’t live without it. But, little did we know until recently that STEM can affect our own brain stem too.

imageYes, there’s a “STEM” in many of our schools, but it’s looks differently from the “stem” we all knew from our looking at leaves. This new STEM offers a lot more, needed learning to our students. Why? Because it stands for: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. Those 4 letters are the “four coins of a new realm of learning” in our K12+ world. STEM is  a different kind of stem. These new areas of K12  and higher-ed learning can help students, both girls and boys, find exciting new and satisfying careers. STEM can change their lives.

A STEM education can not only help with our career choices, it can also help with our personal health and even with managing our life-changing, health-related events. One of RE@L’s upcoming STEM products will present the dangers of both vaping and smoking. We never know what lies ahead of us in our lives, both the good opportunities, as well as  the bad events. STEM can give us the courage to better understand these challenges and often to do something about them. STEM can often help others find the answers we need to improve or restore needed quality to our lives.

CaptDanOur guest blogger, Dan King, has authored two recent blogs that dealt with many of the highlights in his aviation career. In this blog, he writes about more challenges. But, a far different kind of challenge changed his life: intractable pain, physical limitations with our mobility, multiple bottles of medications with frequent pill-taking directives, and sadly, not much relief. The particular medical challenge in his life is known as Parkinson’s disease.

stemSTEM had served Dan well and often with his many career opportunities. But, even more, his STEM skills helped him understand and face his Parkinson’s disabilities. Take his Parkinson’s Disease, for example. As that old joke said, “Please!” But it can’t yet be taken away completely. It can only be managed and sometimes made better. Diseases and disabilities may limit us, whether temporary or permanent, but they can’t stop us. We may know what we can’t do, but we can also learn what we can do.

A knowledge of STEM can help not only our physicians, but us, too, as we better understand suggested treatments. In 2015, Parkinson’s affected 6.2 million people and resulted in about 117,400 deaths globally.

Here’s Dan’s story about his struggle with Parkinson’s. His knowledge of technology helped him find answers that he believed would help restore his career and his quality of life. His simulation cockpit photo is on the right, below. Read on:

images     “Climbing in and out of many new F-22 fighter-jet simulator (sims) cockpits during installations, I noted one leg was unusually sore and the pain didn’t go away. At I first ignored it. As it worsened,  I finally went to the doctor as I was also having more pain and now in my arm. 

After an EMG (NOTEElectromyography (EMG) is a diagnostic tool for examining the changes in electrical activity produced by our muscles), I was told: “You have Parkinson’s Disease.” My life was changed in an instant. Yes, I was devastated by the diagnosis, but more bad news was ahead.

dbsI lived with this progressive disease for about 5 years and managed to somehow get by at work. I didn’t know what to do and was depressed by all my painful disabilities. By chance, I met a man who was a representative for Medtronic, Inc. His company has made many electronic devices that have helped many people with heart issues and, as I found out, also with Parkinson’s. He described in greater detail what their new Deep Brain Stimulator (DBS) device could do to help the many who suffered from Parkinson’s symptoms. I was told that surgically implanting a DBS device in the brainstem of Parkinson’s patients reduced their shaking and many painful symptoms The device also significantly reduced the many meds I required.

My Medtronic friend listened to my story and encouraged me to be a candidate for DBS. I knew enough about technology to understand how DBS worked and, as he explained, it would be the answer to restoring much of my quality of life and work. I was referred to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. There, they were renowned for DBS surgery. 

Dr. Mehta

I met with the DBS lead physician, Dr. Mehta, and he explained the procedure to me. See his photo to the right.  At the next appointment they explained the 12 step process it took to be considered a candidate. Long story short, I met their many requirements for DBS surgery. It was an extensive, expensive procedure, not commonly done, so the doctors wanted to be assured that the patient was a good candidate. I was one, and my knowledge of technology really helped me be selected.

Now it was time for me to schedule my surgery. You don’t want the ‘B’ team doing this procedure. Fortunately, I was lucky to have the accomplished Dr. Lyons, the head neurosurgeon at Mayo-Phoenix. So, as they say, ‘I had that going for me!’ For those who want to know more about the surgical technology, I was fitted with a metal ring around my head to get an exact placement for the electrical leads to be placed on both sides of my brain. It was vitally important to the success of the operation that the wires be placed precisely. If done correctly, the device would send the electronic signal to the proper muscle and the shaking would stop! Oh, yes, I had to lose my hair, too! (Note: The photographs of me  below were taken by my mother when we were in the operating room.)

Dan no hairIMG_0603The procedure was a 2-part surgery, first came the insertion of the DBS device in my brain. Strange to me was the fact that surgery inside the brain is largely painless! Pain, as we know it, comes from the other end of the nerves, like the ones that enervate the muscles in your legs and arms. Plus, you need to be awake during the surgery as the implant has to be inserted in precisely the right place to work effectively. 

The patient stays awake and “shows and tells” the doctor all is A-OK as symptoms disappear along with the pain. The placement of the DBS device in my brain, just above the stem, was Round One of my fight for more mobility. Next came the insertion of the wire leads inside the skin from my DBS in my brain to a controller in my chest. That small controller piece looks a lot like the ones inserted for heart patients. (Photographs courtesy of Ruth King).

Dan Mom BeforeWhen I awoke from my final surgery, the switch in the controller was electronically turned on. The muscle shaking and constant pain was gone. My mom, who was there for me through all the surgeries, met me in recovery and told me I was smiling once again, and for the first time in nearly 6 years. Parkinson’s, you see,  often makes it difficult to smile.

VBR Dan Xmas FamilyWe all cried when I was able to smile again, even the nurse. That’s what happiness is! How wonderful to walk again, to work again, and in so many more ways, to smile again, including in the photo to the right with my wife Tina and Spencer.

Final Report: Several years later, I still have some symptoms of Parkinson’s and some of the pain that goes with it. But it’s much more manageable. The medications I take are fewer. It’s true that I can no longer climb in and out of simulator cockpits, but I have found new work that keeps me busy.

Here’s a shout-out to all those who helped improve my quality of life: my wife, my family, my friends, including the many, wonderful doctors who made technology into the tool it was meant to be. And, oh yes, my STEM learning helped me, too!