Rewiring the brain: An artist overcomes Parkinson's disease

Jon Smith was happily living his life when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. He was then forced to make a decision that could either give him his life back or take it away.

In June of 2006 we introduced you to this Mishawaka man, an artist and art teacher, who after fifteen years of living and working with the terrible tremors of Parkinson's disease, had to give up his passion.

No longer able to work, drive, feed himself or paint, uncontrollable shaking took over the canvas of Jon's life.

He decided on a drastic step—to undergo a delicate brain surgery called Deep Brain Stimulation. A number of electrodes would be placed in Jon's brain.

It would take two surgeries spanning several hours, performed by South Bend neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Yount.

Said Yount, “We're targeting an area called the subthalamec nucleus, which actually inhibits the activity of that nucleus, that controls many of the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.”

And Jon needed to be awake for this delicate surgery. But when the stimulator was finally tested, Jon's tremors were virtually gone. But that was just a test.

Two weeks later Jon visits his neurologist who would turn the stimulator on for good. Would it work?

Less than 24 hours later we found Jon in the quiet of his backyard, putting his brush to canvas, working on a painting he had wanted to finish for years. And that unfinished painting Jon was working on in his backyard, is now truly a work of art.

Jon moved to a different home about a year after his surgery, but is still surrounded by his beautiful paintings and stained glass. Recalling the surgery he underwent nearly 18 months ago, “I was at a desperate crossroads and I just decided I was going to put myself in the hands of the surgeon and God.”

Well, both the surgeon and god came through. Jon today is not shaking at all.

worth the surgery? Yes, i would do it again in a minute because the shaking just limited my ability to do anything.

Jon's ability has returned to continue painting and creating stained glass, and even his newest craze--bugs. Gifts he says he "bugs" his neighbors with!

“It’s very therapeutic making those,” he says, “I sit here all night and make those and time just flies.”

Jon admits that just once after surgery he was tempted to see whether his shakes would return. So he followed through on his curiosity.

“I turned it off and in about ten seconds I just started quivering again. So I know it's working. I just feel most comfortable with it on all the time.”

And when you can go from shaking hands to a steady brushstroke, it is no small miracle.

“It was like riding a bicycle,” he explains, “or better than riding a bicycle, because my hands just knew what to do. My hands already knew what they had to do. I just held steadily onto the brush and I could move it wherever I wanted it to move.”

For fifteen years this artist could not paint, and since his surgery, he has seen his neurologist just once.

“I called him up and said, ‘I need a checkup, I need my tires rotated my oil changed.’ I had a tune up once this left hand began to shake a little, so he adjusted and now I am even, I'm balanced.”

His hands are balanced, but he suffers one side effect. His legs aren't as strong as they used to be. Neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Yount says it is one of the possible side effects patients are warned about.

“The goal is to reduce the tremors in the arms, that's the most disabling thing and sometimes in order to do that you lose a little bit with balance.”

Dr. Yount has performed this same surgery on roughly eight patients since Jon and most get the relief that most of us take for granted.

“For many patients,” Yount says, “they're happy just to be able to eat soup with a spoon or be able to write their name or fill out a check.”

Jon can do that and more, so losing his balance is something he accepts with humor.

“I tell everyone I had to give up ballet and drag racing.”

But Jon has taken up teaching again. He has even published a book called Paper Knot Animals.

Paper knot art—inspired long ago by some first graders who could not tie their shoes or make a tail for a kite, so he taught them to tie paper knots and create art.

What's that saying about "art imitating life?"

“You know the other day I thought about that and it is unreal. Because it just had taken so long. 15 years from slow to exaggerated and it's just unreal that it's gone, it's gone.”

And in its place is the signature of an artist who knows what it is like to lose the ability to create, and the gratitude of an artist whose very frame of reference is a work of art.

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