First Brain Surgery Aired Live on American TV Goes Smoothly

“I never expected this,” says a Parkinson's patient whose hand tremor went away for first time in 10 years.

A 49-year-old Ohio electrician who has long suffered from Parkinson's Disease is recovering well from his Sunday evening brain surgery, the first ever televised live in the United States.

The procedure can’t be declared a success for several weeks or months, said Michael Okun, national medical director for the National Parkinson’s Foundation, an independent care and research organization.

The patient, Greg Grindley, had surgery to implant electrodes that would deliver what's known as "deep brain stimulation" to parts of his brain that have been increasingly faulty since his diagnosis with Parkinson’s a decade ago.

The procedure, a joint presentation of the National Geographic Channel and Mental Floss, went exactly as planned. Grindley was awake during the surgery, so he could help guide the placement of the electrodes. Although surgeons needed to drill a hole in his skull to insert the wires, once inside the brain there are no nerve endings, so that part of the procedure wasn’t painful.

The disease has left Grindley, a retired Navy chief petty officer, with tremors and rigidity in both hands and his face, as well as balance and speech issues. He had to take medication every two hours to regain his mobility, but the side effects left him quivering uncontrollably.

Jonathan Miller, who led Grindley’s surgery Sunday night at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said he hoped the procedure would get Grindley off of a medical “roller coaster.” (Read our interview with Miller.)

'Not an Immediate Light Switch'

At one point during the surgery, Grindley’s tremor disappeared completely.   

“How do you feel right now?” A surgeon asked after turning the electrodes on for the first time.

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Sunday's surgery happened at Cleveland, Ohio's University Hospitals Case Medical Center.

“Wow,” Grindley replied from the operating table, as he was able to move his hands without trembling for the first time in 10 years. “I never expected this at all.”

Viewers watched the scene live were equally moved. “Can't help crying with the results of the #BrainSurgeryLive Hope amazing breakthroughs like this keep on going!” someone with the Twitter handle @Be_Irreverent wrote.

That was one of 16,067 mentions of #BrainSurgeryLive and applicable keywords on Twitter during the live broadcast.

Unfortunately for Grindley, his tremors probably aren’t gone for good. Electrodes are generally turned off after surgeons confirm that they’re in the right place, and won’t be turned on again until the brain heals from the trauma of surgery, likely in a few weeks.

“It’s not an immediate light switch,” said Okun, who was not involved in the procedure but live-Tweeted about it. “It usually takes 4-6 months to get these patients optimized and stabilized after the devices are activated.”

The deep brain stimulation device has 50,000 settings. Doctors will have to figure out which is the optimum for Grindley at this point and then will have to manage his medications, said Okun, a neurologist and professor at University of Florida Health in Gainesville, who put the surgery’s price tag at $50,000-75,000.

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Scientists hope that deep brain stimulation can one day be used to treat pain, emotional and psychiatric problems, even obesity.

Some patients with Parkinson’s develop depression, apathy, suicidality and other issues, he said, which doctors would also have to help him through. Comedian Robin Williams, who committed suicide last year, had previously been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

'Handled Delicately'

Okun was impressed by the surgical team’s handling of Grindley’s case. Although they were on live television, they were attuned to Grindley's needs and communicated well with him, he said.

Neurosurgeons, neurologists, nurses, radiologists and anesthesiologists collaborated like well practiced musicians and “conducted the orchestra magnificently,” Okun said.

He agreed with some critics who raised ethical questions about televising live surgery.

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Jonathan Miller says conducting the surgery on live TV will spread word about deep brain stimulation.

But in this case, Okun said, the procedure was worth televising. It alleviated Grindley’s suffering without taking the medical team’s attention away from him. And the need to educate others about the possible benefits of surgery is crucial, he said.

Only about one in four Parkinson’s patients eligible for deep brain surgery is ever offered it as a treatment option, said Okun, who said he takes no money from industry.

Live broadcasting of surgery, "has to be handled delicately," Okun said. “The way that it was done last night was very appropriate.”

Society’s feelings about media have changed dramatically with the advent of social media, he said, and the medical community has to respond to them.

If last night’s Tweets were any indication, many viewers agreed with him.

“[L]iterally so excited. There should be more specials like this. Modern medicine is amazing,” tweeted an excited Emilie Helfand, @egreenie96, 90 minutes before posting a video of Helfand’s own “brain surgery” with a rubber model.