Surgery today could alter Peninsula resident’s path with Parkinson’s disease

PORT ANGELES — When Charmaigne Dunscomb undergoes brain surgery this morning, she’ll mark a new, welcome curve on a 13-year path.

Dunscomb, 63, had a friend come over and shave her head Thursday morning in preparation for deep brain stimulation, a procedure aimed at relieving the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, which range from tremors to rigidity to depression.

During the surgery, the Port Angeles woman will be awake — with only local anesthesia and mild sedation — so her neurosurgeon, Dr. Ronald Young, can test the effects of the wire he will implant in her subthalmic nucleus.

The operation should last about 90 minutes; during a minute and a half of that, she will hear the sound of a drill piercing her skull.

As she anticipated it all, Dunscomb showed not fear, but gratitude.

And she emphasized two things: hope for relief and love for the people who have stood beside her.

There’s Ward Dunscomb, the man she married — after a years-long friendship born at the Laurel Lanes bowling center — in July 1997.

In November of that year, she felt a sharp pain in her hip while driving her Jeep to the store.

It caused a limp, the first of symptoms no one could then identify.

In 1998, Ward suddenly contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that paralyzed him overnight.

Treatment with intravenous immunoglobulin eventually relieved his symptoms, and Ward has continued to run his business, Glass Services Co. in Port Angeles.

But Dunscomb kept struggling with a strange discomfort.

At her daughter Linda Cameron’s wedding reception in August 2000, Dunscomb didn’t dance, so family members knew there was something wrong.

From 1998 into 2001, she saw doctors and endured tests in Sequim, Port Townsend and Bremerton but remained undiagnosed until she was sent to a neurologist in Seattle.

“He suggested that I try Parkinson’s medication to see if it worked, that being the only way to diagnose Parkinson’s prior to autopsy,” Dunscomb recalled.

The medicine worked almost immediately. She got her Parkinson’s diagnosis nine years ago this month and has been on the medicine, carbidopa-levidopa, since.

But now the window in which the medication works is steadily shrinking, and Dunscomb suffers from side effects including hair loss and dyskinesia — too much movement she has no control over.

Yet Parkinson’s disease has dimmed neither her sense of humor nor her zest for living.

She doesn’t mind saying she wears a wig — either the brunette or the “sassy red one” from Electric Beach Salon in Port Angeles.

As for the dyskinesia, she tells her family, “If you see me flopping around like a beach towel, just ignore it.”

And exercise, Dunscomb said, renews her. She plays aerobic-fitness and balance games on a Wii console with her 11-year-old granddaughter Kennedy, sometimes until both are exhausted.

At the same time, though, Dunscomb suffers from depression associated with her illness.

“To everyone who doesn’t have Parkinson’s, it’s a physical disease,” Dunscomb said.

People see the shuffling and trembling, but they may not realize that for many people, depression follows like a shadow.

This isn’t anything like I thought Parkinson’s would be,” Dunscomb said. “I have a hard time when I’m down and out and depressed because that’s not me.”

The device she’ll have implanted today — a pacemaker-like thing the size of a stopwatch — will deliver electrical impulses from a battery pack surgically inserted in her chest wall near her collarbone.

Once that’s in, Dunscomb will make weekly visits to the Booth Gardner Parkinson’s Center in Kirkland, so the stimulation levels can be adjusted.

Deep brain stimulation has been shown to relieve Parkinson’s symptoms for years in many patients; it’s no cure, but it’s a reprieve, Dunscomb has learned.

So the symptoms may come back in 10 years, she said, “but in the meantime, you get all this wonderful time.”

When Dunscomb talked about her quality of life in the years since her diagnosis, she didn’t dwell on her suffering.

She instead talked about her close friends, including her neighbor Irene Metcalf.

“She lets me physically cry on her shoulder; then we go out and do stuff, and pretend I don’t have it. We quilt and shop and garden.”

After working at Albertsons in Port Angeles for 20 years, Dunscomb joined Glass Services’ staff after marrying Ward — but her friends from Albertsons have nonetheless kept in close touch, providing emotional support over the years.

Dunscomb also credited her physical therapist, Marsha Melnick, for inspiring her to exercise.

Melnick, who practices at Therapeutic Associates in Port Angeles, sees physical activity improve her patients’ lives; she encourages them to dance, practice tai chi or try any activity that involves balance.

The therapist has also seen deep brain stimulation dramatically affect people with Parkinson’s.

Some who used walkers or wheelchairs came out of the surgery able to walk independently, and she has seen others return to their beloved soccer or tennis after the surgery.

Yet deep brain stimulation is no miracle cure, since Parkinson’s symptoms come back after three, seven or 10 years, depending on the individual.

Dunscomb, meanwhile, sailed through the balance tests she had to take last week.

“I was doing so well,” she said, that her doctors told her, “We can skip this part.”

Parkinson’s has laid a long, uncertain road before Dunscomb, and she’s walked it with her husband, children, grandchildren and friends near.

Now she’s eager to see what comes after the surgery.

“It’s going to be so good,” she said with a smile, “to be on other side.”


Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3550 or at

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