UHealth Neurosurgeon Relieves Florida Firefighter’s Mysterious Pain
Dan Brooks, an Indian River County firefighter and father of four, is not one to complain easily. Six years ago, he began experiencing pain on the side of his face. At first, it came and went, but over time the searing pain grew more intense and occurred more frequently.
“It would come out of nowhere,” said the lieutenant who lives in Sebastian. “Sometimes I would be in a restaurant or even at a fire and suddenly I’d be on my knees. The other guys would say, ‘Let’s just get him back to the firehouse.’”
Brooks said it sometimes felt like a burning sensation or an electric shock. “Anything would spark it,” he said, “a breeze, eating, talking.” He went to several doctors near his home, many of whom took MRIs, but found nothing. He tried neurologists, pain management, acupuncture, a chiropractor and a periodontist, thinking the debilitating pain might be a toothache. Nothing helped and no one could seem to find the source.
In October 2014, Brooks suffered an attack that did not ease up. “I had just 30 minutes without pain that entire day and just couldn’t take any more. I’ve heard of people ending it all with this and understood why,” said Brooks. He went to another neurologist who suggested he see a colleague in Miami, Eric Peterson, M.D., assistant professor of neurological surgery.
At the first visit, Peterson knew exactly what was causing Brooks’ pain. An MRI confirmed it: trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic neuropathic pain condition that affects the nerve that carries sensation from the face to the brain. It is often caused by a loop of a brain artery that compresses the nerve as it enters the brain stem, behind the ear.
“I finally had a sense of hope after talking with Dr. Peterson,” said Brooks.
Peterson ordered a special MRI sequence that looks specifically at that area for evidence of nerve compression.
“As I suspected, there was clear evidence of an artery compressing the nerve,” he said. “It’s an illness that is unfamiliar to many physicians, and the surgery requires special expertise.”
Peterson performed a three-hour microvascular decompression procedure on March 4 at UM/Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he made a small incision behind Brooks’ ear. He used a high-powered operating microscope to visualize the small artery and gently lift it off the nerve, then placed several tiny pillows of felt to protect the nerve from the artery.
Brooks, who is now pain-free, describes Peterson as his “new best friend.” The two appeared at a news conference at UM/Jackson on April 14, where the pain and its subsequent treatment were described in detail.
“It has completely changed my life,” said Brooks, who is now back to work at the firehouse. “I just want everyone to know that help is available. No one should have to go through this.”