Oahu man with Parkinson’s runs again thanks to brain surgery

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HONOLULU (KHON2) — According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, nearly 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease every year.

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Robert Fitzgerald, who now lives on Oahu, was diagnosed in 2006 at the age of 41.

“I was having trouble with my right hand and writing any notes,” Fitzgerald explained.

Over the years, his symptoms got worse.

“I got to the point where I couldn’t even … I would put a screwdriver in my hand and I couldn’t get into the slot,” Fitzgerald said.

The disease eventually forced him to retire from his hands-on job as an engineer.

“It was very frustrating that I couldn’t do the type of stuff that I could do before,” he said.

Dr. Michiko Bruno, the Medical Director for the Parkinson’s and Movement Disorder Center and the Queen’s Medical Center, said Fitzgerald’s story is not uncommon.  

“People with Parkinson’s can have tremors, slowness of movement, and difficulty coordinating their movements, and it can be, unfortunately, slowly, gradually progressive,” Dr. Bruno said.

Dr. Bruno said there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, but there are different types of treatment to control the symptoms.

One of those is a brain surgery that changed Fitzgerald’s life.

“So Deep Brain Stimulation surgery is a brain surgery where your surgeon places a stimulator electrode in the deep part of the brain where it is controlling the motor function, and by changing and altering and adjusting the circuit there, it can help the symptoms,” Dr. Bruno explained.

According to Dr. Bruno, the surgery can improve 70% to 80% of symptoms.

However, only 5% to 10% of Parkinson’s patients are qualified candidates for the surgery, and only 2% of those in Hawaii actually go through with brain surgery.

Fitzgerald underwent the Deep Brain Stimulation surgery at the Queen’s Medical Center in January of 2020.

“I only wish I had done it sooner,” Fitzgerald said. “I only wish I had done this DBS surgery years ago because it just … I just felt so great. It’s like somebody just turned a light switch on.”

Now, Fitzgerald runs multiple times a week at Ala Moana Beach Park.

“I’ve gotten to the point now, where I run three times a week at Ala Moana for maybe four or five miles,” Fitzgerald said.

However, just a few years ago, running seemed like an impossible dream.

While Fitzgerald is not cured, he is able to enjoy the little things in life a whole lot more.

“When you struggle to put on some socks, or you struggle to put on a button or a shirt or [struggle to] tie a shoe, untie a knot in a shoe … So you think about those things and you think about how life is so fragile, and if you just look at the positive side of things, there’s always good in everything and you can always make good out of a bad situation,” Fitzgerald said.

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