16 November 2005

Filed under Parkinson's

The power of touch

Times Online November 16, 2005


Michael Holman writes about the astonishing operation which transformed his life and brought him unexpected insights into medicine's complementary mysteries

To call me a bionic man may well be an exaggeration. But since my lifestyle, if not my life, depends on four electrodes implanted deep in my brain, powered by a battery buried in my chest, I can claim something approaching bionic status.

I can even give a graphic demonstration.

Hold what looks like a computer mouse next to the concealed battery, press a button, and the whole system stops working. And within seconds, I start shaking. Press the button again, and I stop. Just like that.

The electrodes are not a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, which I have had for twenty years; but the implant operation, pioneered in Grenoble, France, in the early 1990s, alleviates the symptoms, of which severe, incapacitating tremor is the most common.

Neither of the men responsible for this discovery - Professors Louis-Alim Benabid and Pierre Pollack - can say precisely why the procedure works. But work it certainly does.

Indeed, when I emerged from the lengthy operation at Grenoble’s University Hospital in early 2001, I called the outcome my renaissance, so dramatic were the benefits. Above all, the shakes had all but gone.

So it is understandable, then, if five years later, I return to the French city. I want to be absolutely sure that the battery will not run out during my travels to Africa in the coming months.

But behind my visit lay more than a need for technical reassurance.

After all, the battery life can readily be assessed at London’s Queen Square, where the operation is now performed.

In returning to the place of my "rebirth", I was also seeking reassurance of a different sort, renewing a belief in two ancient healing forces. The first of these became apparent the night I entered the hospital.

Two of my pillars of support - my mother and my partner - had left for the night. I was alone. In low spirits, I opened the note that came with a huge bunch of flowers sent by colleagues at the Financial Times, where I was Africa editor.

It was a list of names, with messages of support. And it buoyed my morale, and helped end my fears of what lay ahead.

The second insight came a few days later, when I was on the operating table. One has to be able to communicate with the neurologist, and so the patient must be conscious throughout a procedure that can last anything from 11 to 15 hours. And because the head has to be rock steady, it is bolted into a surrounding frame.

This is certainly not pleasant; but it is not as bad as it might seem. Having a hole drilled in one’s head is painless - rather like having a tooth drilled when the area has been anaethetised.

But as I lay immobilised, and two friends filmed the process that got under way, I desperately wanted physical human contact. So I appealed to a young neurologist from Italy, who was observing the operation. Although she seemed surprised, she readily agreed to hold my hand. The comfort was real, considerable and immediate.

But the story does not end there. A few days later, a fellow patient in what seemed an advanced stage of dementia, and who had been taking an obsessive interest in me, appeared at the door of my ward.

To my dismay and alarm, this time instead of keeping his distance, he advanced.

Then I remembered my own need for human touch, and I held out my hand. He took it in his, and for a few seconds that was how we stayed, until he shuffled off. I never saw him again.

And so I return to Grenoble, seeking more than reassurance about the state of my battery.

On the one hand, the city’s hospital stands for clinical and professional excellence, the apogee of high-tech medicine, even though it is still not entirely clear how the breakthrough of 15 years ago in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease actually works.

But for me it also is the place where I learnt that modern medicine can be complemented by forces which are equally mysterious, and which can be equally potent: the comfort of the human touch, and the knowledge that one is in the thoughts of family, friends and strangers.
Neither will recharge my battery - but they certainly do my spirits a power of good.

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Michael Holman is a regular contributor to Times On/ine on African issues. He is the former Africa editor for the London Financial Times.
His novel, Last Orders at Harrods: An African Tale, is published by Polygon.