CORNER BROOK — Nick Bennett walked into the break room at work and picked up the newspaper, like he always does.
When he began reading an article about Tony Lightfoot undergoing a scalpel-free surgical procedure in an attempt to correct his progressive medical condition, the Corner Brook man could not believe what was being reported.
Like Lightfoot, Bennett has been diagnosed with what’s known as essential tremor, a neurological disorder that causes his body to shake involuntarily. At first, his doctors thought he had Parkinson’s Disease, a condition which also includes tremors as a symptom.
He did not have other classic symptoms of Parkinson’s and, after seeking a second opinion, was diagnosed with essential tremor about 15 years ago.
“It was like I was reading my own words — I’ve used them many times,” Bennett said of the article about Lightfoot, which described the difficulties he had feeding and dressing himself.
More than just associating with Lightfoot’s condition, Bennett was more interested in the new procedure Lightfoot had undergone.
As the article explained, Lightfoot recently became the fifth person in Canada to undergo an experimental procedure that focuses ultrasound waves at the part of the brain believed to cause the symptoms of essential tremor. After a five-hour, non-invasive surgery, the tremors in Lightfoot’s right arm and hand were virtually eliminated.
“Within 10 minutes, I was on the phone to see if I am a candidate for this or go on a list to have it done,” Bennett said.
He has not yet heard back from the medical team in Halifax, N.S., that is familiar with his particular case.
Bennett’s condition is different from Lightfoot’s. Unlike Lightfoot, Bennett’s essential tremor is currently under control, thanks to two deep brain stimulator implants in his chest that are connected by wires running to his brain. Similar to a pacemaker, the electronic devices send signals that block the brain messages that cause Bennett’s otherwise disabling symptoms.
In fact, Bennett has no problem whatsoever holding down his job as a bus driver, something the 51-year-old has done for the last 23 years. He has had tremors all of his life and also takes a medication used by people diagnosed with Parkinson’s prescribed to him before the implants were inserted.
Deep brain stimulator
Looking at him, it’s hard to tell there is any sort of problem lurking in his nervous system. The only giveaway is a deep brain stimulator Medic Alert tattoo on his right forearm, which is there to advise anyone tending to him of his condition in the event of a medical emergency.
If he uses a remote control to turn off the implants, the tremors return immediately. Turn the implants back on and the tremors disappear.
Because he has the electronic implants, which were inserted around six years ago, Bennett cannot be placed in a MRI machine. Nor can he be treated with a defibrillator should he go into cardiac arrest.
He cannot even have his body scanned at an airport and must be patted down manually when he travels.
The experimental procedure Lightfoot had done does involve the use of an MRI machine to help pinpoint the part of the brain where the tremors originate from.
“I guess they would have to remove my implants and there would be a period of recovery from that before I could get that procedure done if I am even eligible for it,” said Bennett.
There is a risk the ultrasound beams could miss the intended target and create some sort of new problem for the patient.
After a childhood of taunts like being nicknamed “Shakespeare” and an adulthood where people thought he was a alcoholic in withdrawal and other awkward social situations, Bennett is eager to take a chance at correcting his lifelong neurological issue.
“There might be a period of time where it might be hard for me to function, but if I got the phone call tomorrow, I think I would go,” he said.