For most of my life, I have had a condition called Essential Tremor. ET is an uncontrollable, rhythmic shaking of the voice, hands, neck and other extremities. It can usually be treated with medications, but severe cases can be helped by a revolutionary brain surgery. In 1998, I had surgery to implant a deep brain stimulator (DBS) in my brain to control my tremors. The stimulator is similar to a pacemaker and sends electrical impulses into the brain to override the tremor signals. Using a small remote control device similar to a TV remote, the patient can turn the device on and off. Tremors are normally only present when the patient is awake, so the stimulator can be turned off at night to conserve battery life. It only takes a second or two for the patient to return to pre-surgical tremoring when the stimulator is turned off.
Following my surgery in 1998, I had excellent results and wanted to thank the people at Medtronic, the company that made my device. They also make cardiac pacemakers and other medical devices. In addition to my two deep brain stimulators, I also have a Medtronic insulin pump to treat my diabetes.
Since my original contact in 1998, I have had an ongoing relationship with the people at Medtronic. During a visit to Medtronic headquarters last year in August, I had lunch with a marketing guy after the big shareholders meeting was finished. While we were dining, a Medtronic Neurological Human Resources person by the name of Gregg stopped by to introduce himself. Gregg asked me if I would consider a speaking engagement. He is in charge of putting together the quarterly all-employee meetings for the Neuro Department at Medtronic. They like to have a patient come in from time to time and let the employees know why their work is important. It’s similar to what they do at the annual Holiday Program each year for the entire workforce, but it’s just the Neuro folks for this particular meeting. I told him I’d be glad to do it.
On December 7, I arrived at Medtronic for the meeting, which was to be held in the auditorium. Gregg told me that he always saves the patient speaker until last. That keeps people in their seats, because they cover a lot of financial and sales data in between. Sure enough, there were enough numbers to make a crack addict fall asleep. But the geniuses in Finance had a plan this quarter. They had their main numbers guy don a Carnac costume. Then they had other executives come up front and play along with the skit as they reviewed the numbers via a Carnac bit. It was . . . oh, let’s see . . . did I mention it was done by the people in Finance? Well, go ahead; you do the math on that one. All I could think was that they were at least lowering the bar for expectations for my portion of the show. By the time it was over, the bar was so low that you couldn’t limbo under it if you were triple-jointed.
The Vice President and General Manager for Global Movement Disorders introduced me once the thespians were done. When I got to the mic, I said, “I always heard the rules in show biz were: Don't follow children or animals. I have another one I’d like to add.”
The room was mine.
I began by reminding them that I had spoken to the roughly 29,000 Medtronic employees at the 2002 Holiday Program. Then I asked how many people were new hires since then. Almost a third of the people in the room raised their hands, which surprised me. So I decided to throw the veterans a bone. “Who knows the name of the company in Iowa that I run?”
Tons of people recited in unison, “TWO GUYS FARMING!!!”
Then, I set the hook. “There’s a prize for the person who answers the next question correctly. What’s my title?”
One of the engineers I met a year ago got “Guy Number Two!” out before anyone else, so I reached into my bag and got a TGF hat out for her. She beamed as she came to the front of the auditorium to pick it up.
Then I began to tell my story of life as a shaky guy and how Medtronic helped change it. I also mentioned my various TV experiences and the lasting impact they’ve had on people.
I pulled a coffee mug from my bag of goodies. I put a metal spoon in it and then set them on the podium in front of me. Then I pulled out my remote and shut off my stimulator. My trembling hand reached back for the mug. It wasn’t pretty. The chatter was incredibly loud and the spoon rattled out of the cup onto the podium. I put the remote back to my chest and clicked it. I then picked the spoon up, placed it quietly in the mug and raised it up in complete silence. The audience was blown away and erupted in applause.
I told a few more stories about life with tremors, surgery and the various things that go along with both. Then I mentioned how I first became acquainted with this device and with Medtronic. I told them that my testimonial letter to Medtronic in 1998 needed a person as a recipient instead of a company. I had seen an article in Business Week about Medtronic at that time and decided to send my letter directly to the CEO. In the letter, I tried to write it so Bill George (the CEO at the time) would know exactly what I experienced during surgery and the first time I went out in public after getting my device activated. My junior high English teacher always told us to “remember your audience.” The letter I sent did a fairly decent job of hitting the target.
I also talked about the various patients I have encountered over the years and my efforts to help them. The very first one was the gentleman who died on the operating table at Mayo during his surgery. That generated several audible gasps and groans from the audience.
Then I talked about all the little things that people want after having DBS ¬ how it’s not some major task like getting out of a wheelchair and running a marathon. They just want to be able to do everyday things that are no longer possible for them. To demonstrate that fact, I read part of an e-mail I had received from a woman in New Zealand who had recently contacted me about surgery. Here is the relevant part:
“The things I would like to see after DBS is to be able to sit still in front of people, to carry two hot drinks in both hands (one at the moment), to be able to write a letter in front of my kids. And to really feel relaxed. Is that too much to ask for? These things would be of no importance to other people, but to me it is the world. If I could just pick up a drink without thinking. Wow!”
I set the e-mail down and asked, “How can you not want to help someone like that?”
One request I had for Gregg prior to my talk was to get a glass of ice water for me before the end of my segment. Gregg handed me a fine-stemmed glass full of water shortly after I sat down in the auditorium. When he came back with my microphone before my portion, I asked him for some ice. He returned with a tumbler full of ice. I carried both glasses up front with me when I began my talk. After I read the e-mail, I poured the ice into the glass and held it up to the microphone. “Let me leave you with this thought. Listen closely to that glass. Can you hear it? Do you know what that is? That is silence. And that is the greatest sound I have ever heard. Each one of you made that possible and I can’t thank you enough for it.”
Very few people are lucky enough to get a standing ovation. Let me tell you, they feel pretty good on the receiving end. I raised my glass up like a toast, took a drink and walked off the stage.
Some days, it’s good to be me.
Guy No. 2
If you would like more information on DBS surgery and Essential Tremor, visit www.newhopeforessentialtremor.com. Jeff serves as an Activa Ambassador for Medtronic to share his experience with people interested in surgery as a treatment option. You can click on the link “Connect with an Activa Ambassador” on the left side of the screen to read his profile and get in touch with him if you would like more information.