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Surgery helps mayor reclaim life after Parkinson's

Thursday July 30, 2009

Michelle Esteban

KOMONews.com - Mayor David Jones has one speed -- fast.

That's part of the reason he loves flying so much, and how he managed to retire at 50 from his job as a successful executive.

So it was no surprise to wife Nancy Jones that after she and her husband retired to Friday Harbor, he decided to run for office.

"Always full speed ahead," she said.

Jones is currently serving his fourth year as mayor of Friday Harbor.

But it hasn't been just smooth sailing for David Jones, whose life hit a speed bump so big that the mayor went from 100 mph to a dead halt in what felt like a cruel nanosecond.

"I couldn't hide it anymore, I couldn't hide it," he said.

The mayor was quietly battling Parkinson's disease. At first the signs were subtle. His hands would tremble, so he'd sit on them or tuck them in his pocket. No one noticed.

But then came the morning when he could no longer use an electric razor. He knew it was time to tell his wife.

"It's hard not to cry, thinking about how bad things were," Nancy Jones said.

The mayor suspected he had Parkinson's, and a doctor's visit quickly confirmed it.

Medication controlled the tremors at first. But five years later, the drugs stopped working. The mayor's hands began to shake uncontrollably.

"You get to a place where you think you might be at age 90, and you're 60," Nancy Jones said.

The simplest things like buttoning his shirt or tying his shoes were suddenly a monumental task.He couldn't even eat without help.

"You get something like this and it changes your life and you have to deal with adversity different than you did before. And there's not a damn thing you can do about it," he said.

Parkinson's disease is permanent and progressive. The only chance of quieting the trembling is by deep brain stimulation, a type of brain surgery performed while the patient is fully awake.

Jones underwent the procedure at Swedish Medical Center. Surgeons implanted a neurotransmitter that blocks the abnormal nerve signals that trigger his tremors. Deep parts of Jones' brain were stimulated with electric current.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Peter Nora said the high-risk procedure, which can be deadly, is appropriate only for patients who've lost their autonomy to Parkinson's.

"The first discussion I have with a patient is not, 'Lets do surgery.' (Rather, it is) 'Lets talk about why we're here and lets make sure the disease has really taken control of your life where it's worth considering this option,'" he said.

The surgery has helped the mayor regain some control of his movements. With a hand-held magnet device he clicks over his chest, he can activate the deep brain stimulation and prompt the shaking to stop.

Jones is thrilled with the results. He can now button his own shirts, drink a glass of milk without spilling

Prior to surgery, he couldn't make a sandwich. But with the help of the device, he was eager to show off his culinary skills.

"Look at that. Steady as a rock," he said.

The ability to do those simple things we all take for granted has changed the mayor's life, but they pale in comparison to what matters most to him.

"I could be a husband again. I could be a husband again," he said.

"When they turned that thing on, it was like he just settled right down, settled down and smiled," said Nancy Jones. "Like someone turned on a re-start and the light suddenly came on and you almost didn't realize it had been so dim in the room."

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