In February, former MK Michael (Miki) Eitan could not dress himself, hardly spoke, and spent much of his time contemplating how to have a dignified death, with his body and mind debilitated by Parkinson’s disease.
Months later he speaks clearly, the tremors in his hands have subsided and he has resumed an active life — jogging, playing soccer in the park and meeting friends at coffee shops — after undergoing a rare, but risky surgery to treat his symptoms.
Eitan, 77, who served as a Likud lawmaker for 28 years and as a government minister, documented his journey together with Israel’s Channel 12 TV news in a bid to raise awareness of the disease and the potential benefits of deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery.
Eitan, who was known during his years as an MK for his sharp wit and oratorical skills — once speaking for over 10 hours during a Knesset filibuster — was diagnosed with Parkinson’s five years ago.
While the most noticeable effects are tremors and a hunched stance, patients suffering from Parkinson’s often lose control of their primary and secondary motor skills, suffer from vision, bladder, and sleep issues, and eventually lose their memories and slip into dementia.
As the symptoms began to progress, from hand tremors to a slowdown of actions, thought and speech, Eitan began to withdraw from the world.
“I stopped going out of the house, because I did not want to be that thing that no one likes, to be a source of pity,” he said in a heartrending TV report (Hebrew link) broadcast Thursday night.
“It’s not a nice feeling when someone knows you as a person who would stand at a podium speaking, and now you don’t have anything; you can’t speak, or you speak like a child of four, five, or six.”
Eitan deteriorated to taking 30 minutes to unbutton a shirt, and then to not being able to dress himself at all. He, and his partner Karine Nahon, a professor of information science, began looking for new treatment options.
His situation was so dire they also spoke a lot about death.
“I started to feel like he was disappearing — like he just wasn’t there anymore,” said Nahon.
“Of course we started talking about death. What else, when they tell you that you can die in a year or two?” said Eitan.
“He was always trying to prepare himself for the worst: ‘How will I die with dignity, will I be put in an institution, what kind of institution, under what conditions can they take me off life support?'” Nahon recounted.
That’s when they met with Professor Avinoam Reches of Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, who suggested they try DBS surgery, where electrodes are inserted into a targeted area of the brain.
While not offering a cure, DBS can help patients live a more normal life. DBS, which involves psychiatric and neurological treatment based on electric stimulation, is today one of the main treatment methods for the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and other motor disorders connected to Parkinson’s such as tremors, muscle stiffness and movement difficulties.
The procedure was first performed in 1993 and approved by the FDA as a treatment for Parkinson’s in 2002. In Israel, the procedure entered the health basket in 2004. However, its use is still not widespread due to the risks involved in implanting electrodes in the brain.
“Everyone told us ‘don’t do it, including neurologists who said ‘it’s dangerous — they open up your brain and play with it,'” Nahon said.
Eitan however, was determined to go ahead.
“Worst case scenario I’ll die. So what? That was not a punishment for me anymore,” Eitan said. “If I can get another few good years, why shouldn’t I do it?” he said.
Eitan had the 8-hour surgery in February and it was an almost instant success, with doctors explaining they can now emplace the electrodes with an exactness of a fraction of a millimeter.
The next day, he walked out of the hospital almost upright; the characteristic hunched posture was gone.
After a week, as the TV report showed, the tremors died down, and his speech improved. Two weeks later he shaved himself with a blade for the first time in four years.
Four months after the operation, Eitan and his partner were filmed sitting in a café in Ramat Gan. He confidently ordered a coffee, opened a packet of sugar, stirred it in, and lifted the mug with no tremors or difficulties, something he said he could not even have contemplated a few months ago.
In the most recent footage, his fluency is back as he discusses politics. He jogs and plays soccer with his brother-in-law in a nearby park. He also plays paddleball with his partner on the beach.
During the report, Eitan and Nahon were clear to stress that DBS is not a cure and that even as the symptoms recede, the disease continues to progress.
He also has to go for regular appointments where doctors recalibrate the electric signals through an impulse generator battery (like a pacemaker) that is implanted under his collar bone and connects to the doctor’s equipment via Bluetooth.
However, Eitan said that after his years of public service, it was important for him to bring his story to the public.
“I wanted to give the interview to bring this issue to the public agenda, to make Parkinson’s patients aware of this surgical option,” Eitan said. “You can get results that can transform people from a depressed state to active like me, extend their lives significantly, and live a good life.”