Pam Scahill found her essential tremor was interfering with many of the things she enjoys.
Essential tremor is a neurological disease that causes uncontrolled shaking in different parts of the body.
“My essential tremor started when I was 30, which is a little rare because normally they don’t start until your 40s or 60s,” the 72-year-old Carmel resident said. “However, I have what they call familial tremor, which is inherited. My grandmother had a tremor, so did my uncle and my mom. My tremors started in my head, neck and voice.”
But the situation changed in July 2022, when the tremor went into her hands.
“That was a problem because I like to sew, I like to scrapbook,” she said. “I wear contacts. Fine motor skills were difficult to do because my hand would shake.”
Scahill did research and learned about the Neuravive procedure, a non-invasive, focused ultrasound procedure that is FDA approved and Medicare covered. She consulted with Dr. Jill Donaldson, a neurosurgeon who practices in the Community Health Network.
“She is one of the only neurosurgeons within several surrounding states that does the procedure,” said Scahill, a retired medical assistant. “I felt blessed that I qualified. It’s something that has affected me for 40 years, and to live with that every day was difficult for certain tasks. To go out socially, it was embarrassing sometimes because I would shake, and people would think it was nervousness when actually it was the tremor.”
Scahill said her mantra was the Chinese proverb that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.
“So, I took that step,” she said.
Scahill said research shows that 5 percent of the population worldwide has essential tremor, and 10 million people in the U.S. have it.
“Sometimes it’s misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s,” she said.
Scahill had the procedure performed in March.
“The day of the surgery they had to completely shave my head for the brain ablation,” Scahill said. “You can’t do it ahead of time because of the ultrasound waves. It was an amazing experience, and I would do it again.”
Scahill said the procedure is often repeated.
“I’m thinking about having it done the second time to tweak things,” Scahill said. “I’ve noticed a few changes, nothing that keeps me from everyday tasks.”
Her husband, Ed Scahill, said the first four months were perfect.
“There’s just been a little slippage, but Dr. Donaldson said right up front that some people have to have it done a second time,” Ed said.
Scahill said Donaldson only does one side of the brain, choosing the dominant side.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself,” she said.
Scahill said the process will be quicker and easier the second time because she has already qualified for it. The procedure takes approximately 2 hours.
“There was some swelling, and I had to ice my face several days and I had two black eyes,” she said.
Scahill said essential tremor often get worse with age.
“Caffeine makes it worse,” she said. “Stress, fatigue, illness and temperature change affect it. When we go from warmer temperatures to colder, I’m affected.”
Donaldson said the procedure involves burning a tiny hole in the thalamus part of the brain on the other side of the dominant hand.
“It makes the tremor go away,” she said. “They do have five-year data on it, and one year out from the procedure, the tremor control is still very good for 90 percent of the patients. Five years ago, it was still good in 73 percent of patients. It definitely lasts longer than the older ablation procedures and it’s less invasive (than) to have a pacemaker-type battery or something like that.”
Donaldson said the average age for someone having the procedure is 75.
“If someone is 50, I usually tell them they’ll be happier with a deep-brain stimulator at this point,” she said. “We knew it was going to be more durable. Sometimes people know they need to do it on both sides.”