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How Bonnie got her joy back (video)

By The Health News Team | March 21, 2024

Picture your hands shaking and spilling your beverage every time you try to take a sip. You can’t lift a utensil to your mouth without dropping a bite of food. You’ve given up trying to put on a little makeup. And the days of safely chopping veggies to make your favorite dish are long gone.

For more than four decades, Bonnie Conway lived with these increasing challenges and many more from the shaking caused by essential tremor, a movement disorder she was diagnosed with in her 30s. In addition to everyday tasks, Bonnie also gave up some of her favorite hobbies, such as sewing and crocheting. Her growing collection of nonspillable sippy cups lined the kitchen counter.

What is essential tremor?

Essential tremor is the most common movement disorder in the U.S., affecting approximately 10 million people. For many, medication can decrease or eliminate the tremors from the disease. But when medication doesn’t work, or isn’t possible because of complications, patients are often left with no alternative but to live with the shaking and limitations tremors cause.

The tremors are at their worst when patients try to use the affected body part — like Bonnie’s hands — to do something specific with it. Sometimes called action tremors, the tremors lessen when the hands are resting.

However, with Parkinson’s disease, another movement disorder, tremors worsen when the affected body part is at rest, such as when a person rests their hands in their lap. These are called resting tremors.

The two conditions are similar enough that patients with essential tremor can often be misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s. Some patients have tremors on both sides, but sometimes, one side can be worse. Essential tremor often runs in families. In fact, Bonnie and her sister both have the condition.

State-of-the-art hope

For Bonnie, medications to help control her essential tremor had not been an option since 2017, because they couldn’t be taken with other crucial prescriptions she had been prescribed for arterial fibrillation (AFib), an irregular heartbeat. Last year, however, a bright ray of hope came her way when her doctor told her about MR-guided focused ultrasound, now being used at Sharp Grossmont Hospital to treat people with essential tremor and Parkinson’s.

Focused ultrasound is a revolutionary, one-time outpatient treatment that uses ultrasound waves guided by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to target and treat the areas of the brain causing a person’s tremor. Focused ultrasound treats one side of the brain at a time. After a year, patients may have the other side treated if necessary.

Sharp Grossmont launched its focused ultrasound program in November 2023 and is the only hospital in San Diego offering the technology to treat patients with these movement disorders. Bonnie was introduced to Dr. Vamsi Chavakula, director of functional neurosurgery at Sharp Grossmont and the neurosurgeon who performs the focused ultrasound procedure.

“When I met Bonnie, I knew she was an ideal candidate for focused ultrasound,” says Dr. Chavakula. “Her essential tremor was severely impacting her life and I was confident this treatment would be a game changer for her.”

That was the news Bonnie needed to hear. For years, she had refused to let essential tremor define her life. A retired banker, Bonnie is a chatty, social and active lady and a member of the Federated Women’s club of National City. But as time wore on, even those activities became impacted.

“I had friends who would feed me at our functions because I couldn’t get the food to my mouth,” says Bonnie. “It was like I had reverted to a little baby. At home, I was knocking things off tables when I was moving around, just like a child.”

Even assistive devices, including specially designed utensils made for patients with movement disorders, were soon outmatched by the progress of her tremor, she says.

Bonnie’s success story

Bonnie had her treatment in February 2024, with her brother, Mike, and sister, Sharon, rooting her on. She takes pride in knowing she is among an elite group of patients who can say they were “one of the first” to receive the focused ultrasound procedure for essential tremor in San Diego.

Her siblings also helped with some important prep work the night before. For the procedure to be successful, focused ultrasound patients must have their head shaved to allow for good contact between the patient’s scalp and the ultrasound beams, which don’t pass well through hair. Bonnie didn’t even have to visit a salon.

“My brother played barber and shaved my head,” says Bonnie. “It was just the three of us there the night before my procedure — and it was very special to me.”

Bonnie’s procedure was a success, and improvements to her tremor happened in real time with Dr. Chavakula monitoring her progress during the treatment. That week, she was eating and drinking without accidents, using her phone for texting and putting on makeup on her own for the first time in years.

Bonnie is also now back in the kitchen cooking her favorite dishes and, with her loyal rescue dog, Chelsie, by her side, doing many other things she had to give up. She says she is most elated about finally getting to sew dresses for her new great-granddaughter.

“I finally have my joy back,” she says.

Learn more about focused ultrasound at Sharp; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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