‘Pacemaker of the brain’: Cleveland Clinic trials show drastic improvement for stroke patients

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WJW) – A simple task of grabbing a coffee mug is something that Joe Schwappach once took for granted.

Three years ago, at the age of 47, the fleet truck manager tore ligaments in his left arm and underwent surgery. While under anesthesia, he suffered a stroke.

“Just kind of woke up and had a cast on my left arm and I couldn’t use my right arm and I was like, ‘uh, what happened?’ I could think it but I couldn’t say it at all,” Schwappach said.

Schwappach could not walk or talk following his stroke and underwent months of rehabilitation. While some mobility was restored, the one thing he could not recover was hand function.

The St. Louis native would become the perfect candidate for a groundbreaking trial at the Cleveland Clinic called ‘Deep Brain Stimulation.’

“The device functions very much like a pacemaker, but it’s a pacemaker of the brain. There is a battery in the chest that has a small computer inside it and it sends through the wires very tiny and controlled electrical signals,” said Dr. Andre Machado, chairman of the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute.

Doctors are using deep brain stimulation surgery to target pathways in the brain that are not dead after a patient has a stroke. It’s the same parts of the brain that control coordination.

“The area that is surviving after the stroke, reorganizes itself and picks up the function from the area that was affected by the stroke,” Machado said.

“The doctors were seeing progress. I couldn’t tell, they were just minute, you know. But then I started going up and up and up, my scores kept going up and then it seemed to be working,” said Schwappach.

After surgery and months of combined physical therapy, stroke patients are showing more than double the improvement of most stroke patients with only physical therapy.

Schwappach can now use his hand and wrist, something he could not do before joining the trial. He will soon be returning to Cleveland to continue to remove stitches in his head and continue therapy.

“There is hope, don’t give up,” he said.

Doctors hope this treatment will be made available to all stroke victims within three to five years.

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