Three sisters find hope at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute

[5 min read]

In this article: 

  • For years, sisters Peggy, Susan and Martie struggled with essential tremor, a neurological condition that causes uncontrollable shaking of the body, most commonly the hands. 
  • Experts at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute are treating the sisters with a technique called focused ultrasound, an MRI-guided treatment that requires no incision and offers immediate improvement. 
  • Swedish was the first hospital in the Pacific Northwest to offer focused ultrasound to patients with essential tremor. 

This blog is the first in a series.

An unwelcome family trait

Spend time with any sibling group and you’re bound to notice similarities: a strong physical resemblance, shared mannerisms, similar speech patterns, and more. But sisters Peggy, 70, Susan, 72, and Martie, 69, share a different kind of trait — one that’s meant decades of struggle with the basic tasks of daily living and feelings of self-consciousness in public or around strangers.

The trio’s lives have been deeply affected by essential tremor, a progressive neurological condition that causes involuntary shaking of the body. It usually affects the hands and is most prevalent when performing tasks such as writing or holding an object, such as a utensil or drinking glass. While it’s not damaging, the condition can severely affect quality of life and emotional well-being. Some 10 million Americans live with essential tremor.

For years, treatments included invasive surgeries (deep brain stimulation) or medications, including anticonvulsants and beta blockers. The medications were ineffective for many patients and had adverse effects on others. But in 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first MRI-guided focused ultrasound as another treatment option for essential tremor (the technology is also used to treat Parkinson’s disease). With no incision and immediate improvement, the decision was a game changer.

A drawing test given right after the procedure shows the dramatic difference before (left) and after (right) focused ultrasound treatment. At top, from left to right, sisters Martie, Susan and Peggy at Swedish Cherry Hill after a Nov. 2023 visit with Dr. Tony Wang. 

Innovation at Swedish offers hope

In 2013, neuroscience experts at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute participated in a groundbreaking study that explored new brain applications for focused ultrasound. Five years later, Swedish became the first hospital in the Pacific Northwest to offer focused ultrasound to patients with essential tremor. more recently, Swedish began performing the procedure for people who have tremor on both sides of their body. Until just a few years ago, patients were only able to have the treatment on one side of their brain.

Fast forward to 2023, when sisters Peggy and Susan, who both live in Arizona, after years of living with essential tremor, came to the Swedish Neuroscience Institute (SNI) and met with Tony Wang, M.D., a neurosurgeon and Swedish’s focused ultrasound expert.

"We do know that it is hereditary,” Dr. Wang noted at a webinar held last October. “I’ll talk to patients, and they’ll say, ‘oh yeah, my mom had this or my dad had it’.”

Martie was not yet ready to commit to treatment and had made the decision to hold off until after her sisters’ procedures. In August 2023, Peggy and Susan underwent their first procedure with Dr. Wang.

“It was lifechanging,” says Peggy, who immediately after was able to hold a pencil and draw a spiral without a tremor. “Sometimes people don’t even realize they have tremors because you’ve spent so many years compensating.”

Both sisters credit Dr. Wang’s team and their expertise, compassion and reassurance for their decision to come to Swedish for treatment.

Tony Wang, M.D., who performed the sisters' focused ultrasound procedure, with Peggy during a post-treatment evaluation. 

“They made it fun,” says Peggy. “And Dr. Wang’s manner was so calm. He explained everything that was going to happen. I was not anxious one bit.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of [essential tremor] patients live in the shadows and do not seek treatment. For those that do seek treatment, we know that medications alone may not adequately treat patients. Despite medication therapy, many patients will still have tremors that bother them or have intolerable side effects,” Dr. Wang told attendees at last year’s web event.

And Martie makes three

While Peggy and Susan were preparing for their procedure, Martie, who lives in Oregon, was still in the decision-making process, unsure of committing. But after seeing the results of her sisters’ first treatments, she was all in.

This past November, all three sisters visited with Dr. Wang for a follow up and to begin Martie’s evaluation process. Although she has some regret about waiting, Marti’s thrilled for her sisters and excited to begin her own road to being free of tremors.

“[Essential tremor] affects your life in so many ways,” she says. “It’s hard to explain to people who don’t understand why you’re doing that.”

Find a doctor 

Our experts at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute offer comprehensive, progressive diagnosis and treatment for a wide range of spine, brain and central nervous system conditions. Telehealth options are available. Visit us on the web or call 206-320-3940. You can also use our provider directory to find the doctor that’s right for you. 

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.

Additional resources

Focused ultrasounds treat tremors, restoring patients' quality of life

Understanding aphasia

Parkinson's Foundation designates Swedish's Movement Disorders Program as a Comprehensive Care Center

What women should know about strokes

Stroke: Symptoms, risk and other tips from a Swedish expert

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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About the Author

From deep brain stimulation to focused ultrasound to pediatric neurology, The Swedish Neuroscience Team is recognized as national experts to help people address a wide array of neurological conditions. Our goal is to provide useful and helpful advice and tips on non-surgical and surgical options to treat any disease of the mind.

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