AUSTIN (KXAN) – Wendy Gamble, 71, said when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, it was a relief.
“Nobody knew what [my] symptoms were,” Gamble said. “It was kind of nice, in a way, to finally put a name to it and say, ‘Okay, what can I do to fight this? What can I do to be proactive?’” she said.
Though she was relieved to get the diagnosis, the journey ahead was uncertain. Parkinson’s is a progressive neurodegenerative disease, and how it progresses may vary. Gamble was treated at Ascension Seton, where she was deemed eligible for deep brain stimulation, a procedure where electrodes are implanted within an area of the brain to help reduce symptoms.
Gamble decided to have the brain surgery, but only after she did something she always dreamed of doing.
“So a group of us went to Spain last year, and we did the 500-mile trek across [the country],” she said.
What is Parkison’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s disease, affecting more than 10 million people worldwide according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Around 90,000 people are diagnosed with the condition every year in the U.S.
“It’s a disease of the motor system of the body,” said Dr. Erik Krause, a neurologist at Ascension Seton who also treated Gamble. “Basically, people think of tremor, but it can also affect the way you walk, how quickly you move, how good your mobility is and your balance,” he said. “It also has associated nonmotor features like depression and anxiety.”
Most symptoms of Parkinson’s occur when nerve cells in the basal ganglia, a structure in the center of the brain, start to die. This structure produces the neurotransmitter dopamine, and when the cells atrophy, they produce less of it.
While there is no cure for the condition, effective treatments have been innovated to help manage symptoms. And unlike some other neurodegenerative conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia, people don’t typically die from Parkinson’s anymore, Krause explained.
“The classic phrase we use is ‘people die with Parkinson’s’,” he said. “I’ve had people live over 10 years, if not over 15 years, with the disease after diagnosis. I’ve had people who lived with Parkinson’s for 30 years plus,” he said.
How Parkinson’s is treated now
Krause said there are several ways Parkinson’s can be treated. Treatments can be as simple as advising a patient to maintain a healthy diet and stay active to more invasive options like the brain surgery Gamble had.
And while much is still unknown about the condition, Krause said there are more treatment options being studied that patients may have access to in the future.
“There are things that people just don’t even realize are out there, like deep brain stimulation and focused ultrasound therapy for Parkinson’s,” he said. “Then beyond that, there are trials like gene therapy and stem cell therapy, which look promising.”
Gamble said the deep brain stimulation surgery was “no picnic,” but she was glad to have the procedure.
She’s seven weeks out from her surgery, and while her hair grows back, she is making plans for another extended hike.
“Right now, I’m looking at a trail in Scotland that leaves Glasgow and goes up into the Scottish Highlands,’ she said. “[I’ll keep walking] as long as I am able.”