By Lara Sokoloff
Nader Pouratian ’94 always tries to connect with his patients before going into surgery, and Parkinson’s patient Richard Rothenberg ’85 was no exception.
Rothenberg was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s disease in fall 2004. The disease progressed normally for the first five or six years, Rothenberg said, but began to dramatically worsen over the past two years.
“I couldn’t drive to work, I couldn’t really be a dad, nothing that I wanted to be,” he said.
He was referred to Pouratian, and during their initial consultation, they figured out they had both gone to high school on the Coldwater Canyon campus. Pouratian also lives on the street that Rothenberg grew up on and belongs to the same temple Rothenberg attended as a child.
“There were all these coincidences,” Rothenberg said. “On top of that, he had a great recommendation from my neurologist at UCLA. So I decided on the spot to select him as my surgeon.”
Pouratian said Rothenberg was incredibly symptomatic when he first saw him.
“He would go through periods when he was frozen in place,” Pouratian said. “He would rapidly fluctuate to the opposite extreme, where his body moved uncontrollably. It makes it personal when someone is close to your age and you see them so symptomatic. When you add the fact that their life has been so similar to your own and then seeing where he was at, it really strikes a chord.”
The surgical procedure Pouratian performed on Rothenberg on Feb. 15 required that the patient be conscious much of the time.
“During the surgery, I said to Dr. Pouratian, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Tom Hudnut were here to see his two alums in surgery together?’” Rothenberg said.
At that moment, anesthesiologist Adam Brown ’99 reacted.
“That’s when Dr. Brown said, ‘You two went to Harvard? I went to Harvard-Westlake too,’ and we realized the coincidence. It was quite amusing,” Rothenberg said.
During the surgery, a generator was implanted in Rothenberg’s chest to send impulses to electrodes inserted in the brain. Pouratian compared the device to a pacemaker for the brain. Rothenberg had to be awake so the electrodes could be calibrated and the doctors could gauge how much stimulation he could handle, Rothenberg said.
“They had me doing movements with my hands and saying elaborate tongue twisters from my Shakespearean acting days,” Rothenberg said. “It was a fun surgical experience.”
Brown said the surgery was unique because of Rothenberg’s positive attitude.
“He was genuinely excited to have the procedure done and really wasn’t nervous at all,” Brown said. “His positivity and his gregarious personality set the mood in the operating room.”
Rothenberg made an almost immediate improvement after the surgery, one of the most outstanding outcomes the surgical team had seen, Pouratian said.
“It was extremely moving knowing how debilitated he had been,” Pouratian said.
The surgery allowed Rothenberg to return to his life, working and coaching his daughter’s soccer team, he said.
“I still have Parkinson’s, but I don’t appear to have the symptoms of Parkinson’s,” he said. “I’m able to resume life as a normal person again, which I hadn’t given up on, but I’d lost hope on as a reality. The surgery has really helped me.”
Pouratian and Rothenberg have remained close after the surgery. Pouratian attended Rothenberg’s brother’s art opening, and was included in a major fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox foundation, which Rothenberg is very active in.
“We really just enjoy each other’s company,” Pouratian said. “Richie is afflicted by a disease that none of us want, and I really respect him because instead of trying to hide it, he has embraced it and made it a big part of his life to make a difference and talk about it.”
“If there’s any message that I would take away from Richie and would want other people to learn, it’s that when you get a disease like this, it’s not your fault,” Pouratian said. “If you’re okay with it, you should take advantage of that opportunity to help other people with the disease, help them learn about it, and a make a difference for the rest of the world.”