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How brain surgery helped me battle alcohol use disorder

Dr. Frank Plummer

Alcohol was a big part of my life. Like many experimenting kids, I had my first drink when I was a teenager growing up in Winnipeg. As I grew up, went through medical school, and started a research career in Nairobi, Kenya, commuting between Winnipeg and Nairobi, scotch became my drink of choice. I was there at the beginning of the African HIV epidemic and felt the urgency viscerally. As a team, we did a lot of important research and saved millions of lives but it was a roller coaster of emotions. Through that time, I drank whisky to celebrate, relax and deal with stress, anxiety, disappointment and grief.

Building a world-class research operation in Kenya over 17 years was exhilarating, immensely pleasurable and stressful. The entire operation, the lives of 2,000 sex workers we partnered with, and 40 Kenyan jobs were dependent on my success in research grant competitions. The job also involved jumping on a plane on short notice to North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and other parts of Africa. The many long haul flights, 24 hours or more, between Winnipeg and Nairobi followed a frantic few days of ensuring that the bills were paid, the family had money and food for my absence, and our employees were paid. There was no ATM or online banking in those days! Boarding a plane at midnight for a 24+ hour journey was often the first chance I had to relax in weeks. Scotch was my friend and my way of communicating with myself.  It would put me into a pleasant trance, giving me the mental space to reflect, dream big, and it made the journey seem shorter.

When I left Kenya in 2000, I took a job as the scientific director of the national microbiology laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg. This was a 24/7 job, which came with a new level of excitement, career opportunities, and stress. In that job, if there is some kind of epidemic in Canada or the world, one is under a microscope and you can’t say, “Sorry, I am on vacation.”  The NML is part of Canada’s defence against biological threats, natural or man-made. We were on Canada’s ramparts for SARS, H1N1 swine flu and many other epidemics, and I always felt that I was on guard. Four hundred people worked at the lab and I was their leader. Issues surrounding epidemics, funding and human resource challenges came my way constantly. My 12-hour days would start with coffee and a shower, and end with several glasses of scotch before I slept. My work always came home with me.

A family history of liver disease plus alcohol was my undoing. In 2012, I developed chronic liver failure. After a few years living on the edge of death, I was fortunate enough to receive a liver transplant after relocating to Toronto. The transplant was a success and kept me alive to work on various publications and my HIV research. But, I soon went back to scotch to fill some void in me. Alcohol became an addiction at that point, not just a self-medicating stress releaser. I craved it.

I tried all kinds of therapy… residential rehab programmes, support groups, personal addiction counselling, and various medications. They helped for a time, but eventually I slipped back to my former scotch drinking. Then, my transplanted liver started to become sick. As a physician scientist, I was looking for a more robust clinical solution, perhaps one not yet discovered.

Worried about my brain health and liver trajectory, I discussed the matter with my addictionologist Dr. Lesley Buckley. She mentioned deep brain stimulation as a possibility, and of a study being started by Drs. Peter Giacobbe and Nir Lipsman at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre for alcohol treatment resistant patients. It was entirely experimental and a clinical trial had never been conducted in North America before.

After my wife Jo and I did a bit of our own research and had meetings with the Sunnybrook team, we felt I met the criteria, were comfortable with the approach, and I volunteered for the study. Having committed my career to medical science and human health I saw this study as one more way to make a contribution ‐ this time, literally using my brain! I also didn’t have anything to lose. I was going to die if I continued with my old friend scotch.

On December 14, 2018, Dr. Ben Davidson and Dr. Lipsman performed the operation. I was awake and relaxed during the surgery, except when two holes were drilled out in the front part of my skull. The noise and the vibration of the drill on my skull were hugely annoying. It was the worst part of the operation, but fortunately it didn’t last long. After the surgery, my stitches healed quickly and my main concern was whether or not my hair would grow back.

It has been one year since and I feel the neurosurgery was a success ‐ “maximally invasive psychiatry but minimally invasive neurosurgery” is how Dr. Giacobbe described the procedure to me afterward. That surgery has given me my joy for life back. From the demotivating challenges of drinking too much alcohol and craving it, I am once again an early riser, reading through emails, working on my book, walking the dog, communicating with colleagues on an HIV vaccine project, planning my return trip to Kenya and shopping for and cooking dinner.  I no longer drink coffee, but I still make it each morning for my dear wife and best friend Jo who, together with our children and my dog Rosie, got me through the worst days of my life.

Before the surgery, I was waiting to die. Now, I plan to live to finish my book, see the development of an HIV vaccine, and watch my kids, stepkids and grandson flourish. I owe this recovered life to Drs. Davidson, Lipsman, Giacobbe and Sunnybrook and all of its fantastic people!  Thank you all.

I still drink a bit, in moderation, but spend my days happily and productively and truly enjoying life for the first time in many years.

Learn more about deep brain stimulation at Sunnybrook

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About the author

Dr. Frank Plummer

Dr. Frank Plummer was a world-renowned researcher best known for his work in Kenya during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He was the first patient to participate in a North American-first trial investigating the use of deep brain stimulation for treatment-resistant alcohol use disorder. In 2020, Dr. Plummer passed away after suffering a heart attack unrelated to this treatment.