OHSU Brain Institute Patient Stories

Doctors, nurses and other specialists transform lives at the OHSU Brain Institute. Meet patients who found a precise diagnosis and relief, sometimes after years of searching.

Multiple sclerosis

Amy's story

Amy, Brain Institute MS patient

By age 33, I had lost my faith in doctors. Then the OHSU Multiple Sclerosis Center and Dr. Dennis Bourdette changed my life.

I'm a mom, a wife and a country singer. My symptoms started around age 21 with crippling migraines. Doctors told me I just had to deal with those. I had pain, numbness, seizures and vision problems for years, and went to specialists and hospitals all over the country. On my 28th birthday, I went for an MRI and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

I was on tour with my band at that point, doing 300 shows a year. I kept that pace because the record labels were looking at me. When they found out I had MS, they didn't want to sign me after all.

Multiple sclerosis is an invisible, complex disease that's difficult to understand. Five years later, I still hadn't found anyone who could help me manage it. I was frustrated and discouraged.

In 2007, I did a benefit concert for the Pre-Mo Charities fundraiser to support the OHSU MS Center. After the event, Dr. Dennis Bourdette called me. None of the specialists I'd seen would ever actually call up a patient, but he said, "Come see me next Wednesday."

Dr. Bourdette spent an hour with me and just talked, listening to all my symptoms. He was going on vacation the next week, and he read my medical chart on the plane there and back. He called in other specialists to fix things, like dental problems caused by my MS medications. The MS Center at OHSU is like the Mayo Clinic — they run like a well-oiled machine, and they find answers. They never send you out the door still scratching your head over what's wrong.

I feel so empowered by the MS Center and Dr. Bourdette. When I go there, they say, "Tell us what you need." They're the first doctors who have ever given me the controls. With them, I may have this disease, but the disease does not have me.

Whenever there's a breakthrough, Dr. Bourdette is on top of it. If I want to know whether a new medication will work for me, he knows the answer. I look forward to the day that MS medication comes in pills instead of shots — OHSU is pushing in that direction. They're the foremost in MS treatment, and we're very lucky to have them.

I have losses from my MS, but I'm doing well. I still perform because I want kids, families and other patients to see that someone with the disease can pursue her dreams. Dr. Bourdette sees me whenever I'm sick or need to deal with something. Everything my disease took from me, emotionally and mentally, the OHSU MS Center has given back.

Deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor

Colin’s story

Parkinson’s disease nearly overwhelmed Colin Halstead’s life.

He needed two canes to walk. He took 27 pills a day. His voice was hard to understand, and his ability to make facial expressions had all but slipped away. His employer thought he needed to go on disability. Then he faced needing his parents to move from Sutherlin to Eugene to take care of him.

At 48, he felt like a child again.

“Just thinking about being sick for the rest of my life. Ill ─ chronically ill. And it’s only going to get worse,” Halstead said. “Those were the darkest days.”

Now, since having deep brain stimulation surgery at OHSU, things are looking up.

Read more of Colin's story

Cheryl, essential tremor patient at the OHSU Brain institute

Ever since I was 30, I had “Essential Tremor,” or ET. My mother and father both had it, too.

My doctor prescribed propranolol, which helped, but over the last few years, it got worse. I had trouble feeding myself and walking. I couldn’t put on jewelry. My husband had to do my makeup.

All this limited my quality of life. If I was having a really bad day, I’d stay home because I didn’t feel like going out in public.

I joined the International Essential Tremor Foundation, along with a local ET support group. It helped to be with people who had ET and were coping with it daily. It was through my research and this group that I heard about deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery.

I talked to my doctor about DBS. She had actually worked with OHSU’s Dr. Kim Burchiel in her residency, and wrote up a referral for me right away.

I thought  it would be months before I could see him, but instead it was only a few days.  Dr. Burchiel and Antonia Gragg, his physician assistant, thoroughly explained the operation, answering all my questions, and gave me a three-ring binder full of information for me to take home and read through. I was also pleased to learn that they could do the surgery when I was under anesthesia rather than being awake for it —which sounded grueling.

Surgery was a lot to consider, but then I thought about how it was only going to get worse. I could suffer, or I could take a chance. I decided to go ahead.

The operation took about four hours and I stayed overnight in the hospital in case there were complications, but there were none. In fact, when I woke up from this first surgery, my husband said, “Cheryl, look at your right hand.” It was so steady, and the DBS hadn’t even been turned on yet!

Five days later, I had the second operation to implant the stimulator in my chest just below my collarbone. Again I was under general anesthesia. They threaded the wires from the top of my skull down through the right side of my neck to the stimulator. You really can’t see them; they look like a tendon. They didn’t turn on the stimulator as they wanted to make sure all was well.

When it came time to turn on the stimulator a couple of weeks later, Antonia talked me through the mechanics of the remote and then turned it on.

My tremor disappeared. My body was quiet. My husband and I cried from sheer joy. When Dr. Burchiel stopped by, it was wonderful to be able to thank him personally for giving me my life back.

“Hope, Love and Joy.”

I went to see Antonia regularly to take care of small problems. I can carry my own coffee and put on my own eyeliner. My husband and I are preparing for a cruise to the Mediterranean and will be doing a lot of walking. I think I will do really well.

I have gotten back to painting, which has been a love of  mine for a very long time. In fact, I wanted to do something special for  Antonia, so I did a painting for her called “Hope, Love and Joy,” which features three women dancing. That’s how I felt when this was all done.

An illustration of three ladies dancing

Marilee's story

Marilee Thompson worried about having surgery to treat her Parkinson’s disease.

She knew the risks of deep brain stimulation surgery were low, she said, but “somebody makes up the statistics” on the few who have complications.

What she didn’t worry about was the surgical team at OHSU.

Thompson knew that Dr. Kim Burchiel, an OHSU neurosurgeon, had been doing deep brain stimulation for a long time. He was the first doctor in the U.S. to treat a patient with DBS, back in 1991, and he’s done it more than 1,000 times since then.

“I had great confidence in Dr. Burchiel because he was part of it so early on and had so much experience,” said Thompson, now 73.

Read more about Marilee's experience

Brain tumor

Charlotte

It started with stomach pain. Tests showed nothing conclusive. Doctors said I had gastroparesis and irritable bowel syndrome.

Then the acid reflux started. I started sleeping on a special pillow to elevate my head at night. Soon I needed two pillows, then three.

The stomach pain got so  bad, we thought it was a heart issue, but my heart was fine. I had headaches that turned to bad headaches and then migraines. If I bent over, the pain was so bad I couldn’t move.

This went on for 20 years.

I went to a new doctor who ordered a contrast MRI of my head  and neck. I knew something was up when I had an appointment with my doctor immediately afterward. He told me I had a brain tumor and scheduled me with Dr. Justin Cetas at the OHSU Brain Institute. I learned I had a hemangioblastoma, a very rare benign brain tumor. I’d need surgery as soon as possible.

Dr. Cetas was wonderful. He answered all my questions and had a great bedside manner. He had me excited about what was going to happen. We scheduled my surgery for the following week — which was Halloween. We had fun with that: My costume would be the Bride of Frankenstein. Even the  operating room itself was fated: I was in Room 18, which is my lucky number. My wedding anniversary is on the 18th, and both my kids were born on the 18th.

They told me I might have a breathing tube when I woke up after the surgery, or I could need rehab to learn how to swallow again. But after the surgery, there was no breathing tube, and I felt fantastic. In fact, the next day after the surgery I had tomato soup. I hadn’t had that in years because of the acid in the tomatoes, but I felt no pain at  all.

I stayed at OHSU four days. It felt more like a spa visit. My family appreciated the patient advocate who kept them updated. Even the gal who cleaned my room was a hoot. Nurses were very responsive. Even now, if I call or email with a question, I get an answer right away.

Every day I feel a little better. At first I had problems with balance and used a walker, but now I walk normally. I’m a lot stronger. I do things I was too tired to do before, like working in the yard or walking to work. I can play with my grandkids — and not need to spend the entire next day in bed. I have an MRI once a year. I’ll have to do that for five years.

Dr. Cetas has told me I can consider myself cured, and I’ll never need brain surgery again. I’m going to hold him to that!

CIDP (chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy)

Don, a patient at the OHSU Brain Institute

In the winter of 2015, I started getting pain across my back and down my arms and legs. Over the next several months, it worsened. I wasn't sleeping. I was pacing every night.

Then I lost strength. I couldn't get out of my chair. I could barely use a walker. Pain pills didn't work. I had several visits to the local emergency room and hospital for multiple tests, and saw several specialists and doctors before ending up going to a neurologist.

Then my brother-in-law (a recently retired neurologist from OHSU) suggested I have my local neurologist refer me to the OHSU Brain Institute, where I met with Dr. Chafic Karam.

I thought he was very good and helpful; he really seemed to know what he was doing. He did all kinds of tests — a complete physical, nerve conductivity, spinal tap — which gave us a diagnosis: chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP).

My body's immune system was attacking the myelin, the covering protecting the nerves. It made me immediately feel better to know I had a diagnosis.

Once you know something's going on, you don't want to wait. I was admitted to OHSU, where I spent five days getting treatment that included steroids and IV immunoglobulin (IVIG) to help suppress my immune system. Everyone was great. I met new people every day, and one thing I also noticed was that they did a good job sharing information from one shift to the next.

I'll always have CIDP, but there is a large variation in how people recover. I was basically homebound before my diagnosis, and now I have strength to get up and down the steps. I only need a cane when I go outside. I've been very fortunate.

Ken, Brain Institute patient

I had previously suffered from trigeminal neuralgia, which was like a lightning strike to the face any time something triggered it.

Dr. Kim Burchiel at the OHSU Brain Institute took care of the problem, surgically, both times that it flared up. I have also had chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) for several years and was being watched by Dr. Andy Chen at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. (CLL has never presented any problems in the years since I was diagnosed.)

So I'd already had very positive experiences with OHSU when, in 2014, I started feeling weak in the lower part of my body. I had a hard time getting out of a chair or in and out of a car. Gradually, the weakness moved to the upper part of my body, also. 

The neurologist that I had been referred to started me on in-home IV immunoglobulin (IVIG) treatments, but after the fourth session, I ended up in the hospital with extremely high blood pressure. After a week in the hospital and 10 weeks in a rehabilitation/physical therapy facility, I was finally able to return home.

I switched to Dr. Chafic Karam, a neurological specialist at OHSU for a second opinion and long-term treatment. He agreed with the original diagnosis of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), an autoimmune disease that attacks the myelin that covers nerve fibers.

Dr. Karam reinstated the intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) infusions, this time in a facility in Gresham. I continue to have the infusions every other week and take prednisone, gradually decreasing the dosage.

A year ago, I couldn't stand nor walk. With treatment, I have gradually gone from wheelchair to walker to cane to walking on my own. I continue to gain strength as I return to all my normal activities. Every morning I do 40 minutes of physical therapy exercises. I can now pick up and unload a 40-pound bag of pellets for my pellet stove!

This experience has been life-changing in many ways, and I am grateful to the doctors at OHSU for taking it from the scary place of uncertainty to the comforting place of possibilities.

Myopathy

Tomasa, Brain Institute Patient

In July 2016, I was having problems walking. My muscles were getting very weak. Although I was not in any pain, I was just getting weaker and weaker. 

Everything came on so fast. I couldn't walk to get to my doctor's office. I had to go in a wheelchair. I couldn't brush my hair. I couldn't dress myself. I couldn't lift my arms to eat.

My doctor ordered blood tests, and they showed my creatine level was much higher than it was supposed to be. I stopped my medications, including cholesterol medicine. When I had my creatine retested a week later, it was lower — but still very, very high. My doctor thought it might be a neuromuscular condition.

I made an appointment with Dr. Nizar Chahin. My first impression was that he was very smart. His attitude was that we would get to the bottom of this and fix it. I felt like I was in good hands.

He immediately set up tests including a muscle biopsy, a CT scan, blood work, X-rays and a bone density test. I was diagnosed with necrotizing autoimmune myopathy, an acquired muscular disease. The cholesterol medication had caused an inflammation of my muscles.

We live almost five hours away, so he got me started with treatment that day. In fact, he and the team have always been good about setting up our appointments so we have enough time to make the journey to and from OHSU. I have regular IV immunoglobulin (IVIG) treatments at home now. Right now, I'm down to having them every other week.

Due to the muscle weakness in my legs, I could not get up and down my stairs. I spent two and half months in my bedroom. My goal was to be able to get down my stairs and help cook Thanksgiving dinner. That was the happiest day when I accomplished that goal.

In July, I gave up driving because my hands wouldn't work on the steering wheel, but by autumn I was able to drive my car again.  

Last time I saw Dr. Chahin, he said I was about 95% back to normal. We are gradually working me off of the IVIG and steroid medication. He and I were both so excited when I was able to walk into my appointment and not use a wheelchair. He is very prompt with correspondence.

I used to walk two miles every day, and I am looking forward to getting back to that. I am amazed and very thankful. My advice is this: If you think you might have a problem, talk to your doctor and get any necessary tests to help put you on the right track.

Stroke

Kate M., Brain Institute patient

One Friday, I felt a tingle in my leg. On Saturday, I felt tired. Sunday I went to play a soccer game and had no energy. Monday, my left side felt numb, and by Tuesday, I couldn’t move my left side at all.

I was rushed to OHSU, and the doctors discovered I’d had a type of stroke: a lacunar stroke. A small blood vessel was closing, sealing off a small part in my brain, the part that controlled motion. I was in the hospital about a week.

After I got out of the hospital, I spent a lot of time recovering. Even six months after my stroke, I could only type with one hand and had problems walking. I was an athlete and played soccer. I was in my 40s. I didn’t want to give up and not do anything.

So my doctor, Dr. Helmi Lutstep recommended a relatively new type of physical therapy called high-intensity task training. I worked with Andrea Serdar, a physical therapist who’s been trained in this area.

Thanks to high-intensity task training, I can now do most of the things I couldn’t before — even things that seem as simple as carrying a coffee cup in each hand.

It took me about a year or so, but I got back to playing soccer, though sometimes I have balance issues when I make a kick. My relationship with Dr. Lutstep is more than a patient/provider relationship. I feel like they’re friends now, that I can come to them with any question.

I’ve now also run two marathons on behalf of the National Stroke Association. They reached out to me in an effort to raise awareness about women and stroke. I remember when I first started training, I would walk at the track, making sure to align my left foot with the white line, like teaching it where it needed to go.

It’s been almost five years now. Having a stroke this young was definitely a shock. It’s inspired me to get more involved with stroke education and awareness. I’m also interested in helping expand resources and create networks for stroke survivors and their families. It’s definitely helped me appreciate things more.

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Learn about the treatments and services available at the OHSU Brain Institute