Image provided by Wendy Kimmel, crediting Abel Sanchez Photos
As Dr. Michael Rezak and his colleagues at Ascension Saint Alexius finished connecting the neurostimulator in Wendy Kimmel’s chest, Wendy did his makeup.
Dr. Rezak was in good company. Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, presidents and first ladies, the entire cast of Friends, local news anchors, countless brides throughout the Chicagoland area — all have been under Wendy’s brush during her long career as a makeup artist. She and Dr. Rezak both watched that brush closely as it pretended to apply eyeshadow to his face.
For the first time in 20 years, Wendy’s right hand did not waver.
Treatment-resistant essential tremor
Wendy, 71, has been a professional makeup artist since 1987, when she started on The Oprah Winfrey Show. For nine years, she prepped Oprah’s famous guests before their interviews. Later, she joined CBS, where she worked for 27 years. Wendy has also become well-known for her high-end work at weddings. She continues to work today, and also teaches students how to apply make-up via online courses.
That career came dangerously close to ending when Wendy was 51 years old. That was when the shaking started.
“I couldn’t control my right hand,” Wendy recalled. She was diagnosed with essential tremor, a neurological disorder that causes the body to shake uncontrollably. Hands and arms are some of the most common body parts affected.
Wendy worked around the tremor by switching to her left hand when applying makeup — a “temporary solution” that ended up lasting more than a decade. During that time, she tried a variety of prescriptions, but they did not always agree with her. She had to discontinue one medication after it made her too nauseous to work during a commercial shoot. Worse, none of the drugs seemed to stop the shaking. Then, in 2021, the tremor entered her left hand, too.
“I can’t tell you how devastating that was,” said Wendy. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t write. And I had to quit doing makeup for a while.” She also struggled to perform everyday tasks such as buttoning shirts or holding a cup of coffee.
Desperate not to lose her livelihood, Wendy researched anything to do with essential tremor and came across a term she’d never heard before: movement specialist. When she searched for movement specialists in her area, she learned about Dr. Rezak… and that he took appointments at Ascension Saint Joseph - Chicago, just blocks from her home.
“This is like fate. It’s like God stepped in. And I’m not a religious person.”
Are you being treated for a movement disorder and not seeing results? Ask an Ascension Illinois neurologist if deep brain stimulation is right for you.
Preparing for deep brain stimulation
A warm, ebullient storyteller, Wendy is quick to laugh and quick to cry. She does both when she speaks of Dr. Rezak. “Besides my GP, Dr. Rezak is the kindest man I’ve ever met in my life, ever.”
Together, she and Dr. Rezak reviewed her medical history and determined that her tremor’s long-standing resistance to treatment made her a good candidate for deep brain stimulation (DBS). During DBS, electrodes are placed in affected areas of the brain and then connected by wires to a pacemaker-like device under the skin of the patient’s chest. This device helps regulate the brain’s activity with electrical pulses.
In addition to essential tremor, DBS can be used to treat other movement disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, dystonia, Tourette syndrome and side effects from taking certain psychiatric medications (also known as tardive dyskinesia).
“DBS has opened the door for many patients who are having motor difficulties,” said Dr. Rezak, who has been involved in DBS procedures since the 1990s. “It can give them many years of good functioning.”
Wendy was highly motivated to undergo DBS, but according to Wendy’s nurse navigator, Athena Luebke, many patients need more time to think about it.
“I’m a very patient person, so I’m not going to push anybody into treatment,” Athena said. “Instead, I ask, ‘What’s holding you back, and how can I get you to a point where you feel comfortable making a decision?’” Athena frequently refers uncertain patients to Ascension Illinois health psychologists (who specialize in coping with a medical diagnosis) or to a DBS ambassador program where they can talk to people who have already undergone the procedure.
Before Wendy could be cleared for surgery, she had to pass a neuropsychological evaluation, which she enjoyed taking. She also got to zone out to a little classical music while her brain was scanned with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Ascension Illinois radiologists and neurophysiologists used this imaging along with a CT scan to map exactly where the electrodes would need to go in Wendy’s head. Finally, the team recorded her movements on video so that they’d be able to compare the results after surgery.
For Wendy, the toughest part of preparing for surgery was having to shave off her thick mane of hair (according to both Dr. Rezak and Athena, this is often a major concern for DBS patients). She entrusted this task to a hairdresser friend, who also helped her find the perfect wig to wear.
But hair grows back and Wendy, currently sporting a bob, has no regrets. “When you know you’re about to do something that will change your life and restore your career, you don’t care.”
“I did it! I really did it!”
Wendy’s first procedure took place on April 27, 2022 at Ascension Saint Alexius in Hoffman Estates, IL. She remembers feeling more excited than scared.
The memory of it still makes her tear up. “When you’re in the prep room and you see more than a dozen people there who are your team and they’re going to take care of you, it makes you feel really good.”
“There is a wealth of experience here at Ascension Illinois,” said Dr. Rezak. “And the empathy and compassion for the patient is very high here. I think our patients feel that, and it makes a big difference.”
Performing the actual surgery were Szymon Rosenblatt, MD, medical director of neurosurgery at Ascension Illinois, and George Bovis, MD. Dr. Rosenblatt placed the electrodes and wires just under the skin on the left side of Wendy’s scalp. A week later on May 4, he placed the neurostimulator in Wendy’s chest and connected the wiring. Because the left side of the brain controls the right hand, this diminished the tremor in Wendy’s dominant hand. Finally, on July 7, Dr. Rosenblatt added the wiring to the right side of Wendy’s brain, restoring her left hand as well. Wendy was able to go home after an overnight stay for the wiring procedures… and got to go home the day of her neurostimulator implant.
Good thing, too, because Wendy had a wedding to get to. Two weddings, in fact. Now that her right hand was back in action, Wendy was able to work both gigs.
“Oh my God, I did it! I really did it!,” Wendy remembers saying to herself afterward. “It was like a whole new experience, getting to use my right hand again. I hadn’t used it in 15 years!”
Make-up for lost time
Along with her cosmetic skills, Wendy has regained the other abilities she’d lost. “I was able to sign Christmas cards this year,” she said.
A self-described gym rat, Wendy is back to her weights and aerobic regimen. She’s returned to her online teaching while she waits for the wedding season to start up again in spring. She is also working part-time as a home health aide, caring for a man with Parkinson’s disease four days per week.
Wendy can feel the wires when washing her hair and sometimes while settling into sleep, but much of the time, she forgets they’re there. She can even turn off her neurostimulator at night to conserve the battery. In the morning, she opens the app on her phone, turns the device back on and her hands instantly stop shaking. If she needs more control, she can raise the levels on one or both hands, though she seldom needs to. Dr. Rezak and his team fine-tune the device as needed during regular follow-ups.
“People call me the bionic woman,” she said.
If possible, Dr. Rezak encourages anyone with a movement disorder to seek out a movement specialist in their area, rather than start with a general neurologist. “I do this all day long and read all the journals and I still can’t always keep up. Medicine is moving quickly and a movement specialist can help you find the treatment that’s right for you.”
Now that she has her life and career back, Wendy has become an evangelist for DBS. So far, she has talked a friend’s sister into getting it for her tremors.
“I would recommend deep brain stimulation to anyone whose quality of life is being wrecked by essential tremors,” she said. “I think anyone who can get the surgery should get it.”