For Kimberly Spletter, bike rides had always been a source of relaxation, until she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She could no longer safely balance on her bike and had to turn to riding a stationary bike instead, as the uncontrollable movements associated with the illness even compromised her ability to walk.
Her symptoms began six years ago, at age 44, as mild dystonia in her left foot. Her toes began to curl under, and soon her fingers on her left hand were becoming numb. Kimberly was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and began taking levodopa to manage her symptoms. Unfortunately, the medication often produces its own debilitating side-effects, and after only 6 months, Kimberly began noticing the dyskinesia, or involuntary movements and shaking. Over the next few years, the dyskinesia became extreme. “I was at a wedding recently, and I couldn’t dance with my dad. It was sad," she recalls.
Fortunately, Kimberly was referred to neurologist, Dr. Paul Fishman at the University of Maryland, who suggested she consider a new study using focused ultrasound. The procedure would be non-invasive and could offer symptom relief, which would be life-changing for Kimberly. But, it was experimental; she would be one of the first patients in the US to try it for her dyskinesia. “I did my research because I wanted to be as informed as possible," she says. "I looked at the old ways they did the pallidotomy and the research that has been done using focused ultrasound for essential tremor. Most of all, my family and friends were in full support, so I knew I was making the right decision.”
During the procedure, for which she was awake, Kimberly reports feeling only a sensation of heat, a bit of nausea, and pressure from the frame that was placed on her head. But the positive effects were immediate. After the final sonication, the team helped Kimberly stand, and she was able to walk on her own to a recovery room. “I’ve shuffled for so long. Now, for the first time in 3 years, I can take big steps and walk with a purpose. I’m learning to walk with a normal gait.”
Days after the treatment, Kimberly is elated. “I have had some mild headaches, but I have been running, walking, and riding my bike. This has turned back the clock for me.”
But you’ll still find Kimberly at the YMCA helping others to cope with some familiar symptoms. She recently earned her certificate to teach a spin class called “Pedaling for Parkinson’s,” and she’s the first instructor to actually have the disease. “I feel a strong connection with my participants," she explains. "I know what they are going through, and they know what I am going through.”
Doctors will follow Kimberly for the coming two years to monitor her progress and the durability of the treatment. “I know Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, but I am hoping that the focused ultrasound treatment will last long enough for researchers to find a cure or improve the current medications.”
Although she understands that there is always a risk associated with medical innovation, she encourages others to help drive research forward. “It is my hope that people will participate in clinical trials. I think the only way we’ll find a cure is by testing new ideas.”