December 8, 2011

Coach using his Parkinson’s treatment to raise awareness

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Nashville Predators coach Brent Peterson is undergoing deep brain stimulation therapy at Vanderbilt to treat Parkinson’s disease. (photo by John Russell)

Coach using his Parkinson’s treatment to raise awareness

The 2003-2004 hockey season was, as they say, the best of times and the worst of times for assistant coach Brent Peterson. The Nashville Predators hockey team, which he had coached for since their establishment in 1999, was having a banner year, making the playoffs for the first time.

But “Petey,” as the associate coach is affectionately known, had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and for that whole jubilant season, no one except his wife Tami knew about his struggle.

Now nine years later, at age 53, Peterson is in the midst of a procedure at Vanderbilt called deep brain stimulation (DBS) in which electrodes are implanted in the brain and connected via a thin wire to a generator, similar to a pacemaker, placed under the skin of the chest.

Although the mechanisms of DBS are still largely unknown, it is believed that the electrical current jams the brain circuit that is firing inappropriately and puts it back in balance. In the case of Parkinson’s, the brain isn’t producing sufficient amounts of the chemical dopamine, which leads to tremor, slow movement, stiffness and difficulties with balance and gait.

On Dec. 6, Peter Konrad, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Neurological Surgery, implanted the electrodes in Peterson’s brain. Next week, the generator will be implanted in an outpatient surgery, and then Peterson will see Tom Davis, M.D., professor of Neurology, to turn on the device and fine-tune it.

Tami Peterson was the first to suspect her husband had Parkinson’s, when she noticed his right arm wasn’t swinging naturally, but it took her two years to convince anyone else.

“I can still see him standing in front of our son’s bedroom door with his arm cocked. Just the way he was standing, I knew,” she recalled.

Peterson insisted it was an old hockey injury, certainly a plausible explanation after his long career on the ice.

He grew up in Calgary, Canada, with an outdoor ice rink a block from his house, and left home at age 15 to play in the Canadian Junior Hockey League. In 1978, he was an NHL first-round draft pick and played 11 professional seasons with Detroit, Buffalo, Vancouver and Hartford.

He went straight from being on the ice to being behind the bench, coaching for 20 years, including 13 with the Predators. At the end of the 2011 season, he announced his transition to an off-ice advisory role.

“When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I knew there would be a day when I would have to get off the ice, so I prepared myself for it. It is sad but you’ve just got to accept it,” Peterson said. “Every time I have a pity party, I think of others who have it worse than I do. I just have an inconvenience.”

Peterson hopes DBS will relieve the “inconveniences” of Parkinson’s. He sleeps only about two hours a night, due to medication side effects. Some days he will be completely “locked up” with rigid arms and a shuffling gait.

“I had to go to an electric razor because I was cutting myself to death. I needed a doctor every morning to suture me up,” he said, showing his signature sense of humor.

In 2007, he established the Peterson Foundation for Parkinson’s, which raises awareness about the disease through annual events and supports Parkinson’s research at Vanderbilt.

“The reason we do all this — it’s not for publicity for me,” Peterson said. “It’s so people can be aware of what we have and how we can help other people.

“If this procedure works for me, by being in the public light, I can make more people aware and give them hope.”