Before he retired from his factory job at age 60, Steve Stampfler built himself a 1,500-square-foot workshop inside his new pole barn.
That way, he could make the transition to retirement without missing a beat. He had woodworking projects stacked up and was itching to get at them.
“Steve can do anything with his hands. He’s built three houses from scratch,” said his wife, Heather, sitting in their custom home on an idyllic 10-acre plot outside Plainwell, Michigan.
“If I tell him I need a table, he builds me a table the next day,” she said. “My friends call him Superman.”
Steve’s first two years of retirement unfolded as planned. While he and Heather continued to run their marina storage business, he squeezed in as many personal projects as he could.
He built and furnished intricate dollhouse-scale log cabins for his grandchildren.
He crafted toy jeeps, tractors and golf carts, all from wood.
He constructed a professional-grade shuffleboard table for their home’s walkout basement, a gathering place for friends.
And he cleared more of their land, creating an 8-acre lawn.
“He likes to mow,” Heather said, laughing.
“He’s the Energizer Bunny.”
At age 62, Steve noticed a tremor in his hands. At first he didn’t pay much attention. If he was working in the shop, he’d set his tools down for a minute, then carry on.
But the symptoms ramped up quickly, and Steve soon had a diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease.
Doctors tried various medications but couldn’t quite get his symptoms under control.
One day, the Stampflers heard about a Parkinson’s disease event hosted by the Spectrum Health movement disorders team. They attended, and stuck around afterward to talk with one of the presenters, neurologist Ashok Sriram, MD.
Impressed with Dr. Sriram’s knowledge, Steve became a patient at his neurology clinic.
“It was a perfect match,” Steve said.
The doctor updated Steve’s medications, but the disease progressed quickly, increasing his tremors and fatigue and disrupting his sleep.
The couple rearranged their priorities. They sold their storage business, jettisoned their vegetable garden and started ticking travel destinations off their bucket list: Alaska, California, Florida, the Maritimes.
Back at home, Steve set aside his fine woodworking jobs, gave up deer hunting and found different projects—like restoring a 1958 Farmall tractor.
“He thought, ‘I can’t hurt it,’” Heather said. “So we dragged it home and he tore it down piece by piece and rebuilt it.”
Deep brain stimulation
Before long, Dr. Sriram and his colleague Angie West, PA-C, presented the option of controlling Steve’s tremors with deep brain stimulation. Deep brain stimulation uses thin wire leads, implanted deep in the brain, to send an electrical current to a targeted cluster of brain cells. The stimulation can still the tremors of Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor and, in some cases, ease the symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder.
The idea didn’t appeal to Steve.
“I thought, ‘No way am I going to go through that, with someone drilling holes in my head,’” he said.
But as his need for medications increased and their side effects became more intrusive, Steve and Heather began to reconsider.
They did what they always do in the face of a big decision—prayed for guidance and talked with their children. The consensus was that they should confirm whether Steve would make a good deep brain stimulation candidate.
A comprehensive evaluation last spring revealed he met all the criteria.
The Stampflers then met with Rushna Ali, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group neurosurgeon who performs deep brain stimulation surgeries using the newest type of head-frame, a simplified system that makes the surgical experience more comfortable for patients.
She described the three surgeries:
- An initial outpatient procedure, under anesthesia, to screw four small metal anchors into the crown of his head. These points would be used during the second surgery to hold a 3D-printed plastic frame that serves as a guide for the neurosurgeon’s tools.
- The main surgery, under conscious sedation, to drill two holes in Steve’s skull, through which the doctor inserts the leads that will stimulate the brain’s tremor-control nucleus.
- A final outpatient surgery to implant a generator under the skin below Steve’s collarbone and connect it to the implanted leads. (Two weeks after this final surgery, Dr. Sriram would activate the generator and begin the process of programming and adjusting the system for maximum tremor control.)
Dr. Ali’s thorough explanation calmed their fears, Steve and Heather said.
Gathering up all of these experiences—their comfort level with Dr. Ali, their confidence in Dr. Sriram’s team, Steve’s suitability for surgery and their children’s support—the Stampflers felt themselves being nudged toward deep brain stimulation.
“We think that God’s pushing us in this direction,” Steve said. “We’re trying to preserve the quality of our life for as long as we can.”
They scheduled his three surgeries for July 2, 12 and 19.
In the big surgery
The first surgery went beautifully, and though he felt some anxiety in the lead-up to the “the big one” 10 days later, he couldn’t wait to get it over with.
Early on July 12, Dr. Ali met with Steve and Heather and a handful of family members at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital for a last-minute huddle.
Steve would receive anesthesia to block the pain, she reminded them, but he would remain awake so he could interact with Dr. Sriram as he tested the placement of the leads.
“We want you fully with us to be able to tell us if you’re having any side effects or any issues,” Dr. Ali said.
Once everyone got settled in the operating room—Steve propped up in a reclining bed, Dr. Ali and her surgical team working behind a sterile plastic curtain—she numbed his shaved head and talked him through the next steps.
“If at any point it starts to get uncomfortable, you just let us know. We can always give you more numbing meds,” Dr. Ali told him. “You’re running the show here, OK?”
After attaching the crown-like frame to the anchors in his head and marking a spot on each side, she removed the frame and drilled two dime-size holes through his skull.
Meanwhile, Dr. Sriram prepped his computer for the testing phase and engaged Steve in small talk.
Reattaching the frame to Steve’s head, Dr. Ali mounted a drive guide to it and prepared to insert the leads. Each one had to go in at a precise angle and depth—measurements planned ahead of time using MRI and CT images.
Once the right lead was inserted, Dr. Sriram managed the painstaking process of testing its placement for neurological benefits and side effects.
“1, 2, go,” Dr. Sriram said, turning on the stimulation system.
“Steve, what do you feel? Tingling in the hand? OK, make a fist. Open and close, as fast as you can. Did that ease up a little bit? OK, we’re going to turn it up a bit. Let me know as soon as you feel any side effects.”
After tweaking the voltage, he resumed testing: “Do you feel like there’s a pull on your face, Steve? Say ‘Today is a sunny day.’”
It’s a phrase neurologists often use to assess a patient’s ability to produce language.
Tapping his iPad, Dr. Sriram bumped the voltage higher and continued: “Name some animals that start with the letter S.”
“Snake. Snail. Squirrel,” Steve said, watching live images of his brain on a big-screen monitor.
When the doctor happened to comment about an image on screen, Steve’s dry humor bubbled up: “Not finding anything, huh?”
As testing continued, Steve’s right hand stopped tremoring—a clear benefit of the electrical stimulation. At times his vision would blur or his face would flush—side effects that helped round out Dr. Sriram’s evaluation.
Eventually satisfied with the lead placement on the right side, Drs. Sriram and Ali repeated the insertion and testing process on the left. The second side proved trickier than the first, but by early afternoon the procedure wrapped up.
“We’re all done,” Dr. Sriram told Steve. “We’re going to leave those leads right there.”
Later that afternoon, Steve found himself reunited with his family. The relief in the room was palpable.
“I think the anticipation of the surgery was harder than the surgery, really,” he said later.
The following week, Steve returned to Butterworth Hospital to have Dr. Ali implant the generator and connect all the wires.
At an appointment two weeks later, Dr. Sriram turned on the generator for the first time and began programming the system—a process similar to the testing he performed during the main surgery. Though Steve initially experienced an uncomfortable episode of dyskinesia—involuntary muscle movements affecting his upper body—Dr. Sriram resolved the issue by adjusting the stimulation.
Resuming normal life
It’s mid-August, a month after the big surgery. Steve sits on a tractor, hauling away a tree he’s cut down. By the end of the day, he has cut and hauled eight trees that had been leaning toward a friend’s house and barn.
It’s a perfect illustration of what he can do post-deep brain stimulation.
“Energy-wise and fatigue-wise, I feel a lot better. I’m able to work harder, longer,” he said. “I think that’s because the tremors are under control more.”
With deep brain stimulation controlling his symptoms, he’s on a decreased dosage of medication and has seen relief from related side effects.
He also sleeps better at night, which means he doesn’t pace the floor the way he used to.
“That’s a big improvement for me and for the quality of my life,” Steve said.
As an added benefit, his vivid, often harrowing, dreams have stopped.
“He’d wake up screaming in the middle of the night. It’s only since the DBS that they’ve disappeared,” Heather said.
“That was a plus that we never expected.”
Now, as the weather turns cooler, Steve’s attention has shifted from outdoor projects—like working with his sons to install an in-ground swimming pool for his 10 grandchildren—to projects in his workshop.
“This winter I plan on getting started back into woodworking,” he said. “I’ve got to finish my barn up,” referring to a miniature replica of the old dairy barn on the farm where he grew up.
Though he still visits the neurology clinic for periodic fine-tuning of his deep brain stimulation settings, life is “pretty much back to normal” Steve said, and he couldn’t be happier.
“I think it’s absolutely amazing,” he said.
“One thing we know for sure—that God has blessed us, even through the Parkinson’s.”