by Tiffany Sweeney

Steve Gonser, one of our own hometown heroes, worked for the Great Falls City Fire Department for 36 years. Steve felt he had won the lottery when he landed the best job in
the universe. In 2012, however, everything changed when a fellow firefighter noticed a shift in Steve’s movements. He had developed tremors and began to drag his feet while he walked. Steve’s daughter noticed his feet trembling while they watched TV. It was time to investigate. Extensive testing was performed, including tests in movement, gait, balance, reflexes, and joint fluidity. In July 2012, the diagnosis was in: Parkinson’s Disease.

Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a chronic disorder in which vital nerve cells in the brain malfunction or die, resulting in the loss of normal control of movement. It is primarily known as a progressive movement disorder, displaying such symptoms as tremors, slow or rigid movements, and impaired balance or coordination. However, a number of invisible symptoms also result, including pain, dementia or confusion and other cognitive changes, fatigue, disturbances in sleep, changes in smell, and even depression and anxiety. It is a disease with no cure—yet. Instead, the focus remains on managing and treating the symptoms.

Steve was shocked and overwhelmed by his diagnosis. His world had been turned upside down, and life would drastically change for him, starting with retirement from a job he loved. He was immediately put on medications to help with most of the disabling motor symptoms. He enrolled in a program known as Big and Loud, combining big, exaggerated movements via physical therapy with the practice of common speech patterns and projection through speech therapy. Two years later when he was retested, he showed slight improvement.

Yet, the disease was still taking hold of Steve’s life. He had developed hand tremors, insomnia, stiffness and rigidity throughout his body, drooling, and even some hallucinations. He began to feel like a burden on his wife, Karen, as she had to assist him with every day activities, such as buttoning his shirts, putting on jackets, or buckling his seatbelt. Over the years, Steve and Karen heard of an option known as Deep Brain Simulation (DBS), in which many Parkinson’s patients have seen a decrease in symptoms. It is a fairly recent surgical procedure, first approved in 1997 for patients suffering from the disease for at least four years and showing a decrease in medication effectiveness. It was again approved in 2002 for those with more advanced symptoms. For Steve, DBS seemed to be the next step toward relief.

Steve began his DBS journey in February 2020 with cognitive testing. Showing no signs of dementia, he was then able to proceed. Fast forward to October 2020, with additional testing and consultations in between, and he was finally approved for the first part of surgery. Over six hours, electrodes were inserted into his brain through holes drilled into his skull, sending new messages to his brain through electrical impulses. Once completed, Steve was asked to write his name to determine if his handwriting improved, and voilà—Success!

Before proceeding into the second portion of the surgery, Steve needed time to heal. He returned in the middle of November only to be informed that he was COVID-positive and immediately sent home. After quarantine, Steve returned to the operating room to receive the Impulse Generator Battery (i.e., IPG). This battery, implanted directly below the skin, has the capabilities to send constant electrical impulses to his brain, and can be adjusted whenever needed by his physician using an iPad.

Today, Steve and Karen reminisce about their journey in awe. Steve’s symptoms have greatly subsided. He has transitioned from taking nine pills a day before the surgery to two. He has returned to his wood shop, a life-long love, and recently rebuilt a cedar chest and jewelry box. Karen has also experienced the effects of this life-altering surgery as Steve’s caregiver; a weight has been lifted from her shoulders and you can visibly sense her relief as she watches her husband’s spark reignite.

Steve spent so many years helping his community. He had to retire because of the disease, but he is still sharing his compassion as the president of the Central Montana Parkinson’s Support Group. He says, “There is no shame in this. No need to fear. And, there is help.”

For more information on the support group, contact Sandi at (406) 564-7515 and sandidick@outlook.com or Steve at (406) 788-3476 and kgonzo5@bresnan.net.