Experimental brain surgery gives triathlete new beginning
December 11, 2012By Taunya English
A new use for an innovative medical treatment has helped a Northeast Pennsylvania man return to an athlete's life.
Pat Brogan was training for a triathlon 10 years ago, when a serious hit-and-run accident twisted his life. After the crash, he was diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary muscle movements.
Brogan's neck would cramp and seize up. He says the pain was constant. When traditional medicine failed, doctors tried deep brain stimulation. During surgery, doctors carefully place electrodes in the brain to target the correct muscle control centers.
"I went in with such high hopes of being cured, of being back to normal," Brogan said.
There is no cure for dystonia. Brogan knows that, but he was hoping for quick results after taking a chance on the nine-hour experimental brain surgery.
Brogan's symptoms improved briefly in the days following the surgery. But it was three years before he really felt better.
"I'm laughing now, but it wasn't funny at the time. Everything was falling apart," he said.
Nurse practitioner Joan Miravite is a deep brain stimulation programmer at the Beth Israel Medical Center, where Brogan gets his care.
While no one really knows how deep brain stimulation works, Miravite says the theory is that the brain is sending irregular patterned signals that cause the flexing and contracting.
"The idea is that when we turn on the stimulation, it somehow normalizes the brain signals, the firing rate," she said.
'Not a quick fix'
Through trial and error, Brogan and his medical team eventually found the right settings to provide relief while minimizing side effects.
"It's not a quick fix at all," Miravite said. "It can take months to get there. Typically a year later, patients are doing phenomenally well."
A wire from the electrodes in Brogan's brain snakes down his neck and connects to two batteries implanted in his chest. Both he and his doctor can adjust the levels.
"If you adjust your voltage 0.1, you need sometimes two weeks to two months for that 0.1 to settle through your brain and let your body absorb that change," Brogan said.
He's doing well enough that, this fall, Brogan completed the Dewey Beach triathlon in Delaware.
Deep brain stimulation is still considered an experimental treatment for people with dystonia.
Pat Brogan is hosting a charity event in Hazelton, Pa., later this month to raise money for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation.