For most of her life, Michigan resident Kristin “Sunny” Berry was able to manage her tremors enough to continue her beloved artistic hobbies.
“I had suffered with ET since I was 7 years old, and it has now been more than 50 years,” says Sunny. The condition runs deep in her family, with her grandmother, father, and closest uncle all affected. “Eating was a total nightmare – in my thirties, I started using two hands to eat, and I couldn’t eat with strangers. It was unpleasant and embarrassing. I was damaging my gums when brushing my teeth. I became extremely good at hiding – I hid my hands a lot, but the tremor in my jaw and neck was harder to hide, especially when I was nervous or self-conscious.”
About 10 years ago, her shaking had become so uncontrollable that she was forced to stop many of her creative pursuits – penmanship, drawing, and most of her painting.
Seeking Relief with Focused Ultrasound
With her tremor at debilitating levels, Sunny started to assess her options. She attended a deep brain stimulation seminar at the University of Michigan, but “I didn’t like the idea of someone cutting into my head, and the risk of infection with having an open wound was scary.”
Sunny learned about focused ultrasound while seeking solutions on the website of a patient advocacy group, the International Essential Tremor Foundation (IETF). She saw that focused ultrasound was available at Ohio State and scheduled a meeting with the medical team, including neurosurgeon Dr. Vibhor Krishna. “When I finished speaking with him and he left the room, I broke down in tears. I couldn’t believe that I would have this opportunity.”
Her focused ultrasound procedure was April 14, 2016. She says that she was a bit nervous before the procedure, and was not looking forward to shaving her head (a requirement of the procedure). Her partner, Will, also shaved his head in support.
Overall, she found the procedure was generally painless. “They were taking me out during treatment intervals to test my writing,” she shares. “It was fascinating to watch my own handwriting progress in a matter of minutes between each treatment. Toward the very end of my treatment there was some discomfort, so a very kind technician came in and held my hand.”
Life after Focused Ultrasound
Sunny says she now has 85 percent steadiness in her right (dominant) hand, and that her left hand has improved about 20 percent as well. [Focused ultrasound results in an immediate reduction of tremor; the procedure is currently only being done to relieve tremor from one side of the body, typically in the dominant hand.] Her head tremor is also better. She is grateful for the procedure. “If I hadn’t gotten it done, I probably wouldn’t be able to feed myself in a couple years—or brush my teeth and button my clothes. All of the fine skills would be lost.”
Now, 11 months after the procedure, Sunny reports that the tremor has not returned, and she is more optimistic about the future. “I’m doing things that I haven’t done in years, including drawing and painting. My hand is now steady – it doesn’t shake. I look at it and think there is a big part of my life that is just fine. I look at my hand and say, life is good.”
To view more about Sunny’s experience with focused ultrasound, see Dr. Elizabeth Healey’s episode of “The Cure” on the Al Jazeera English news network.