A New Day In Parkinson's Treatment

'She's like the Energizer Bunny'

“I have a lot of people call me when they’re first diagnosed, wanting to know more about this disease. I listen to them and talk to them and it makes them feel better, I think. ‘If she can do it, then I can do it, too.’ ”

– Gayle Zoeller, on sharing her experience with Parkinson’s disease

Gayle Zoeller was in her 40s when she started showing symptoms. After several incorrect diagnoses – there's no definitive test for Parkinson’s, making the diagnosis a process of elimination – she started treatment with a neurologist and a movement disorder specialist in Louisville, where she and her husband, Chet, live. At 50, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“We’ve seen a lot of people handle the diagnosis and the disease differently,” Chet said. “Some people just kind of shut down, go in their house and don’t come out again, but Gayle just met it head-on. She didn’t want to just sit back and say ‘poor old me.’ She went after it.”

Gayle pursued treatment at Cleveland Clinic and the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, as well as by the movement disorder specialist in Louisville. But her disease continued to progress. “It ultimately got to the point where she needed to do something more than the meds,” Chet said.

Dr. Craig van Horne, Parkinson's expert

Through the Parkinson’s community, Gayle met Dr. Craig van Horne, a neurological surgeon and Parkinson’s expert working at UK HealthCare’s Kentucky Neuroscience Institute. Dr. van Horne had recently developed a new procedure to help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s, called DBS+, and thought Gayle might be a good candidate. She became the 14th patient to ever have the procedure, which is available only at UK HealthCare.

Van Horne’s approach combines the established Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) with an experimental nerve-grafting procedure. The nerve cells are transplanted during DBS surgery, meaning patients do not have to undergo additional procedures.

In this combined approach, called DBS+, the surgeon transplants peripheral nerve tissue into an area of the brain where neurons are dying. The grafted cells are being tested for their ability to release chemicals believed to rejuvenate the brain’s weary dopamine-producing neurons.

Peripheral nerves – which lie outside the brain and spinal cord – have regenerative qualities that nerves inside the brain do not. The UK team hopes to leverage those regenerative effects within the brain, potentially halting or reversing nerve damage caused by Parkinson’s.

An immediate difference

For Gayle, the difference was immediate. “It was like I didn’t have Parkinson’s,” she said. “It was wonderful to not have the shaking anymore.” Four years later, Gayle’s tremors remain well-controlled by the procedure.

“All indications are that it’s working for her,” Chet said. “She’s had Parkinson’s for 25 years, and just looking at her, you wouldn’t realize she has Parkinson’s at all. She’s like the Energizer Bunny.”

Parkinson's research advocate

Almost as soon as she was diagnosed, Gayle became a Parkinson’s activist. One of her first major achievements was traveling to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the Morris K. Udall Parkinson’s Research Act of 1997. As a direct result of the bill, hundreds of thousands of dollars were distributed to Parkinson’s research centers across the country.

“You could see what a big amount of money could do, because you were seeing new drugs and things like that develop because of this bill,” Gayle said. It was her first foray into activism, but not her last. She started the Parkinson Support Center of Kentuckiana, a non-profit organization serving people with Parkinson’s disease across Kentucky and Southern Indiana.

In recent years, Gayle has stepped back slightly from her active role in Parkinson’s philanthropy, but she’s still enjoying an active, fulfilling life. She and Chet are frequent travelers, exploring the world with their children and grandchildren.

“You have to be very proactive,” Chet said. “There are good days and there are bad days, you just have to be positive and do the best you can. We enjoy life, our family and our friends. That’s about all you can ask for.”