The man on Steve Blackman’s television screen violently throws himself backward in his chair. His shoulder-length hair whips back and forth with the motion of his body.
Looking dazed, he settles back in the chair. Moments later, he smacks himself in the head.
Blackman’s eyes are glued to this man on the screen, who appears to be suffering from a severe tic.
“Man, that one was really bad,” Blackman says.
And he should know.
He’s the man on the screen.
Blackman, 49, of Monticello, looks a little different now than he did in the video. The footage was shot at Yale-New Haven Medical Center on July 23, 2004 — the morning Blackman underwent a five-hour surgical procedure called deep-brain stimulation to treat his Tourette’s syndrome.
His hair’s shorter, but that’s because doctors had to shave his head to get to his brain, where they implanted two electrodes. These electrodes were placed in the thalamus, which serves as a routing station for incoming impulses.
He now has a mysterious rectangular bulge just below his collarbone, where a device called a Kinetra neurostimulator was inserted. The electrodes are connected to this device, which delivers electrical stimulation to his brain to stop the Tourette’s symptoms in their tracks.
Blackman was only the second person in the country — fifth in the world — to have deep-brain stimulation surgery performed to treat Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive involuntary movements and vocalizations.
And it worked. Steve Blackman has seen a marked decline in his tics.
“I’d say I’m 75 percent better,” Blackman says, clutching a cane in his living room. On the walls of this room are a slew of “Lifesaver” awards — the most recent from 1994 — which serve as testaments to an EMT career cut short by Tourette’s symptoms.
Before the surgery, Blackman only occasionally shouted out an obscenity — the characteristic most often associated with Tourette’s by the public. That symptom is actually a rarity, and since the surgery, he’s had only one outburst.
The symptoms Blackman suffered from were primarily violent body tics, including smacking himself in the head. His tics were so violent they have left him with a partially paralyzed left side and nerve damage in his neck.
“Steve was in such bad shape, there weren’t any other alternatives left,” says Dr. James Leckman, a child psychiatrist and director of research at Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center.
Leckman, who specializes in Tourette’s research and has been Blackman’s doctor for 12 years, said even with Blackman on medication, his tics were unbearable.
“He was just going to get worse and it was only a matter of time before he totally lost use of his left side,” says Leckman, who notes that the severity of Blackman’s tics was rare. But, he adds, the worst Tourette’s cases he’s seen have been in adults.
Blackman was hospitalized for three weeks following the implant surgery. A week after he was discharged, doctors began programming the stimulator to fit his needs.
Because the brain is such a delicate area, he goes back to the hospital every two to three weeks as they slowly get the electrical current adjusted.
For Blackman, the device’s stimulation is not continuous. Using a remote control, he can turn the pulses on and off. “When it’s pulsing, it makes my vision real blurry,” Blackman says. “I also get this feeling of an imbalance, so I don’t leave it on all the time.”
But when he does need a jolt to lessen the serverity and frequency of his tics, he holds the remote over the implanted stimulator to activate it. Within about eight seconds, he feels the electrical stimulation pass through him.
The tics begin to subside.
“I call it zapping myself,” he says, which he does two to three times a day, 10-15 minutes at a time.
Though the severity of the tics and the number of them have been greatly reduced, they still occur daily.
And because deep-brain stimulation, which has been used for some time on Parkinson’s patients, hasn’t been used to treat Tourette’s syndrome before, it’s a wait-and-see situation for long-term effects.
Unfortunately, deep-brain stimulation can do nothing for the damage that has already been done to Blackman’s body. Only traditional physical therapy may help him recover from the damage the tics have done.
But he’s still hopeful.
He has to be.
“This is my last chance at living a seminormal life,” he says.
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