January 25, 2023

Awake brain surgery changed patient’s life

A Southern California member with Parkinson’s disease underwent deep brain stimulation surgery to reduce the tremor in her hands. 

Joann Schmidt shows her steady hands after brain surgery.

The story of Kaiser Permanente member Joann Schmidt is one of hope and inspiration for people living with essential tremor and Parkinson's disease. Schmidt, who has been dealing with the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's disease for years, underwent a deep brain stimulation surgery in December 2022 while fully conscious at Kaiser Permanente Woodland Hills Medical Center.

Deep brain stimulation surgery is a procedure that involves placing a pacemaker-like device into the center of the brain. The device sends electrical pulses to stimulate a specific area of the brain. The goal of the procedure is to relieve symptoms of several movement disorders, including essential tremor and Parkinson's disease.

What makes Schmidt's story even more noteworthy is that she wanted to share her surgical journey. So, with the approval of her surgeon, she welcomed a local Los Angeles TV news reporter and camera into the operating room. She saw this surgery as an important opportunity for others to see the life-changing benefits of deep brain stimulation surgery and understand that it is a viable option for some people.

Medical excellence

According to Schmidt, the surgery was nothing short of “a miracle” and has changed her life forever. This was her second deep brain stimulation surgery; the first one was performed on the left side of her brain a year earlier to steady the right side of her body, and the second surgery was focused on steadying her left side. Prior to the surgeries, Schmidt had been experiencing tremors so severe that she could not even bring a fork or cup to her mouth, which greatly impacted her daily life.

Our integrated health care delivery system at Kaiser Permanente provides not only preventive care and treatment for mild illnesses, but also care for members and patients in a fight for their lives. Relief from debilitating neurological disorders may sometimes require a full range of advanced options.

Every step of the way, a dedicated neurosurgical team was with Schmidt, including Ajay Ananda, MD, a neurosurgeon at Kaiser Permanente Woodland Hills Medical Center, who performs more than 150 of these surgeries each year, and Patrick Hickey, DO, from the neurology department at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center.

Schmidt was a crucial part of the team, which is why she was awake during the entire surgery. Dr. Ananda said the reason for the patient to be awake is twofold: First, to see if what is done during surgery is helping by checking if the tremors are gone, and later to let the surgery team know everything else functions correctly and is not interfering with the brain.

‘Happy and grateful’

As the surgery was ending, Schmidt underwent a series of tests including hand coordination exercises. While her care team was focusing on finishing up the procedure, Schmidt was thinking of something else: her upcoming wedding anniversary. She then realized her left hand was no longer shaking like it did before the surgery.

When asked how she felt after the surgery, Schmidt responded, “I feel great. I’m just so happy and grateful. It’s a miracle. Like a miracle.”

After the successful surgery, Schmidt and her husband, Dan, had the chance to celebrate their 50th anniversary together, with the bonus of Schmidt being able to eat and drink with both hands steady and without tremors.

Watch the CBS news story