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How A School Principal's Shaky Hand Led To A 'Brain Pacemaker'

Warning: Confronting Images

When we arrive at Todd Murfitt's Adelaide Hills home, it's cold and foggy, and the 37-year-old is in his front yard, where several packages have just been delivered.

"It's a greenhouse I'm going to build," he tells me.

"I've got 10 weeks off, and I'm going to get into the garden."

The school principal has some free time, because he's recovering from major brain surgery just three weeks ago, but you wouldn't know it just from looking at him. That is of course, until we go inside, and he takes off his beanie to reveal a large u-shaped scar that runs right across his skull.

His wife Mandy is in the kitchen. She greets me and the cameraman with a warm smile and tells us that scar is the remnants of the 30 stitches Todd had post-operation.

Todd needed 30 stitches in his head after his surgery. Photo: 10 News First

That operation, all four and a half hours of it, is known as Deep Brain Stimulation. It's a delicate and enduring procedure to treat Parkinson's disease. Two eight-centimetre electrodes are inserted deep into the brain, and a computer chip placed in the chest, to deliver electrical stimulation to the brain. It gives Todd more control over his symptoms.

READ  MORE: Your Dreams Could Be An Early Clue To Parkinson's Disease

Adelaide neurosurgeon, Professor Matt McDonald, performed the surgery.

"It's a bit like putting a pacemaker to the heart, but putting it to the brain," he told 10 News First.

Todd remained awake for the entire procedure, performing various neurological tests along the way, so doctors knew they are placing the electrodes in exactly the right spot.

According to Todd, the inserting of the probes didn't hurt. The human brain has no pain receptors. But it was listening to the surgeons drill their way into his head that was particularly challenging.

Todd. Photo: 10 News First

"When the drill bit caught the bone, the shaking of your whole skeleton.. and the noise.. the only way I can describe it is like being underneath a jet engine."

And standing there for a total of six minutes, as two holes are drilled into the skull.

Adding to the pressure, Todd even had a cameraman in the operating theatre, capturing the experience. It's all part of his determined plan to bring more awareness to Young Onset Parkinson's.

More than 80,000 Australians live with Parkinson's, and the average age of diagnosis is 65.

But when Todd received that life-altering news, he was 30 years younger.

"I was typing my school newsletter, as I normally would do, and my left hand just shook," he said.

He mentioned this strange sensation to his GP, who referred him to a neurologist. But it would be six months before he'd meet with the doctor, who was quick to deliver Todd the shock diagnosis.

Todd didn't know that much about Parkinson's at that point. All he'd ever really heard about the disease was via Hollywood actor Michael J. Fox.

"I would never have thought, in a million years, that I would have Parkinson's. No way."

"I didn't know if it was terminal, I didn't know if it was career ending, all of those things. I had no idea."

Driving home that night the reality started to set in.

"I sort of had to pull over a couple of times, and un-fog the eyes, before making it home."

For two years, he was taking a lot of medication.

"I was going through so much medication, that there was just no room left for me to go."

READ MORE: Tiny Device Bringing Hope To Epilepsy and Parkinson's Sufferers

It was due to generous donations from his school community that $40,000 was raised and could afford the Deep Brain Stimulation surgery.

It's not a cure. But the results were dramatic. In fact, they were almost instant.

"It was a new body," he said, with a grin.

"I really noticed. It just felt like a whole new body."

He plans to return to work by the end of August. In the meantime, he'll build that greenhouse, and enjoy spending quality time with his wife Mandy, and their two daughters, Ella, 10, and Mia, 7.

His symptoms might now be under control, but Todd's burning ambition to use his experience to have a positive impact on his community, is more active than ever.

He wants others worried about symptoms to know that Parkinson's is not just an old person's disease.

"Life can throw all sorts of things at you, but they don't have to rock your core beliefs and your faith."

Todd with his daughters, Ella and Mia. Photo: 10 News First

If you'd like to follow Todd's story further, you can read about it on his blog. 

Contact the author: tryan@networkten.com.au