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I watched Grey’s Anatomy and learned about MS and Deep Brain Stimulation

Like many of us who have multiple sclerosis, when I hear that the disease is being mentioned in media, I seek out that media. I want to see just how my disease is being portrayed, even if it’s the type of media that wouldn’t normally interest me. When Jamie-Lynn Sigler announced that she’d been battling multiple sclerosis, I ended up reading some celebrity magazines and websites that I normally wouldn’t. Well ladies and gentlemen, this scenario has just repeated itself. I was informed that a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy had Wilmer Valderrama guest starring as a patient with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis.

Full disclosure here, I am not a regular watcher of the show. In fact, as a male in my mid 30’s, I’m pretty sure I am the demographic furthest away from what they are catering to. Going into this viewing, I knew a few things about the show that I’ve heard over the years. I knew it takes place in a hospital, in Seattle. And that there may or may not be two doctors named McDreamy and McSteamy battling it out over the show’s main character. As it turns out, that last part was in the early years of the show. So, yeah, I’m not super knowledgable about it, but when my disease is brought up, I’m gonna check it out!

I pull it up on demand and from the scenes they showed for previous episodes, I can tell I’m in for a very dramatic hour! I’ll save everyone the full recap; suffice it to say, there are some competitive ladies (and a few men) that are doctors and may or may not like each other. But onto to what I want to see, Wilmer Valderrama’s (who I remember from That 70’s Showyears ago) character, Kyle Diaz, shows up at the hospital. He was diagnosed with RRMS two years prior but now has a persistent tremor in his right hand (hey, ok, I can relate to that!). He is also a renowned acoustic guitarist and just scored the opening act for a larger group about to go on tour just as this tremor started. He laments the bad timing of the tremor (hey, I know all about that too) because this performance could make or break his career.

At this point, all of this sounds right, and looks realistic (I picture myself just as smooth and suave with the ladies as his character does while he constantly hits on them; after all, those of us with MS are often told “but you look so good”). In order to help Mr. Diaz get back on tour, the staff at the Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital decide that they should operate. They’ll do a Deep Brain Stimulation. He’ll be awake so he can play his guitar and hit on one of the doctors while they try to pinpoint and fix the tremor. I pause the show, “wait, they’re going to do what?” I take notes and continue on! The surgery is a success, Kyle Diaz can play the guitar again and he may have also scored the digits of one of the doctors (this is a very successful trip to the hospital)!

Now I admit, if I had heard about Deep Brain Stimulation before this episode, I had completely forgotten about it (memory issues!). So when this was mentioned, I was pretty surprised. There was no change in medication. No anti-anxiety or antihistamines prescribed, as can be common when tremors start. Upon further research though, Deep Brain Stimulation is actually a very valid treatment for MS tremors. It’s even listed on the National MS Society’s web page as a possible treatment. I was shocked, I really did not expect this TV show to be that factual.

Factual to a point anyway. Deep Brain Stimulation is an option for tremors in MS, however, it’s considered experimental and has shown varying degrees of success with MS patients. It has been very successful in patients with Parkinson’s disease though, so there is some hope, and it’s still being evaluated for MS. The procedure involves putting electrodes in the brain. These electrodes are then connected to and powered by a battery that is usually placed near the collarbone. The battery then sends electrical pulses to the electrodes that block the messages causing the tremors. Those details were not mentioned on Grey’s Anatomy (maybe it will come up later, as I hear Wilmer Valderrama will be a recurring guest star).

I admit, I was surprised that the operation they performed was so rooted in fact. I went into the show assuming that it would be a completely unrealistic portrayal. Now, sure, Deep Brain Stimulation would not have been the first thing they tried. It’s an invasive and potentially dangerous surgery and there are other options, like medication and occupational therapy, to try first. The medicine is second to the drama here though and I understand that. For all I know, maybe Kyle Diaz explored those other options before this. It’s a TV show and you have to let your imagination do some work. So overall, I’m very pleased with the portrayal of MS in the show. We are all different, but tremors are a fairly common symptom. They ratcheted up the drama some with the procedure they chose, but at least it was rooted in some fact. I’m always a fan of anything that will raise awareness for the disease, but I do want to see what else happens with the character. I’d hate to see them portray this surgery as a type of cure for all of his symptoms. Either way, if this portrayal gets a couple more people to donate or sign up for an MS Walk, then that’s a success to me. I am curious how his MS will continue to be portrayed though, so it looks like I will have to tune in again. Besides, now I have to see what happens after April filed a restraining order against Jackson.

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  • Theresa
    3 years ago

    As a long time fan of the show, I too watched intently as they played out the MS storyline. Just like you, I had my doubts about surgery being a remedy for the tremors & during the very next commercial I googled it! I was surprised that it was a valid form of treatment and glad that the writers based the treatment on fact, albeit dramatical.
    Another favorite show of mine,Fear The walking Dead (what can I say, my viewing habits are very diverse)also recently had a character divulge that she had MS. I’m not sure if I liked how they portrayed her. She was ready to give up the fight, saying “I’m not well, I have MS.” And then was described by another character, “She’s sick…” I guess I never think of myself as being “sick”. I don’t have to worry about how they’ll continue to address MS on this show. She was bitten by and then became a zombie…which ironically is how MS does make me feel!

  • MsMyers
    3 years ago

    I don’t follow Gray’s Anatomy, but I did see the character with MS on Fear the Walking Dead. I do appreciate the visibility that these episodes are bringing to MS, though.

    Side note: My husband and I watch a lot of zombie movies and TV – I often joke (in a not-really-kidding kind of way) that since there is no way I could run from them, I’m resigned to being a zombie-distracting martyr (“save yourselves!”). Or, there is a always a super-slim chance I’ll be safe since no zombie is gonna want to eat my diseased brain…

  • Devin Garlit moderator author
    3 years ago

    Hi Theresa, I noticed that on Fear the Walking Dead too! It was a brief mention and almost seemed like the writers just pulled a disease out of a hat! She said she wasn’t well and had MS and I think said she could die any day (I could be wrong). It definitely wasn’t an accurate portrayal but I suppose (and this is me trying to give everyone the benefit of the doubt) that being in that situation, maybe the toll of the apocalypse was weighing on her. I could see someone in that situation using MS as a reason to give up. Still, not a great portrayal. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who noticed that!

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