ITT: A Musical Career Saved by Brain Surgery

May 23, 2018

Anna Whitlock Henry is playing her flute again. Now, though, she’s doing it without hand tremors she’s suffered since she was in high school. She vows to dedicate her first concert to the doctors who made it possible. And for whom she played a not-so-typical concert in the operating room at Memorial Hermann Hospital at Houston’s Texas Medical Center in late March.

After playing the wind instrument for most of her life, the 63-year-old Henry had recently overcome breast cancer when she faced a decision about her musical future. Tremors in her left hand had made playing her flute difficult.

“I was realizing that it was getting harder and harder for me to hide the limitations my tremors were putting on me,” she says. “It was really time to either quit or do something about it.”

Henry, whose tremors also affected her sewing and jewelry-making, decided on the latter, and never looked back. She underwent the six-hour surgery while wide awake. She received medication only to block the pain of doctors literally getting inside her head. But because the surgery team needed feedback during the procedure, she had no general anesthesia.

“I had so many people, friends and family, praying for me. I don’t know how it could have been. I just was surrounded by this tremendous sense of calm and rightness. When I went in, we had talked about the fact that I would be awake during it, but they asked if I wanted a little sedation. I said, ‘isn’t better if I don’t have any,’ and they said, ‘well yeah, but we can give you a little bit if you need to take the edge off,” Henry explains.

Surgeons first screwed a large halo-shaped, metal device into her skull to hold her head perfectly still. Henry says that was the only pain she experienced. After that, the doctors peeled back her scalp.

“They drilled holes in my skull. It was like have your teeth worked on at the dentist, when your mouth is numb. You can feel the vibrations in other parts of your body, and you can hear the drill, but you don’t feel the pain of what they’re doing.”

Doctors then placed a tiny 1.3 mm-thick electrode into both sides of her brain where her thalamus is located. They fine-tuned their placement after Henry told her neurosurgeon, Dr. Albert Fenoy, that the underside of her tongue had become numb. An earlier MRI had given Fenoy, who specializes in the procedure, a map on where to place them.

“He had done 500 of these or more of these surgeries, then when they positioned the things in, they would set the parameters as a test to see if it was hitting the right spot and what would effect what. There was a little bit of, I don’t think I would call it trial and error, but they were making sure they had the right spot.”

Henry’s tremors began when she was in junior high in Odessa. They are called various things: an essential tremor, a familial tremor or a tremor of intent. All are benign and are typically hereditary. Her father had them, too. With Henry, they worsened at times, like for auditions.

Two medicines calmed them through the years but one lowered her already low blood pressure. So she stopped taking them. About 10 years ago, her primary care physician suggested she see a neurologist.

“She had told me it was a possibility, but at that time I wasn’t quite to the point of having so much trouble with it that it was just killing me. At that point I was like, I don’t want somebody drilling a hole in my head. That seems awfully extreme,” she says.

Henry says doctors promised her the tremors would be improved between 50 to 90 percent. She feels she got the 90 percent end. She is hopeful her experience will show others with tremors what’s possible.

To check that the tremors had subsided, the surgical team had her write her name and hold a small jar of water. Both were done without any tremor. Then they asked her to play something on a flute, which she did without a hitch.

“Finally, practicing is enjoyable again. It had gotten to the point where I hated to pick up my flute because I knew what a struggle it was going to be and now I’m playing everyday,” she says.