Blaine man cites improved life after brain surgery

Published on Thu, Mar 12, 2009 by Jack Kintner

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Open the door to Blaine veterinarian Jack Schuman’s office and you’ll be greeted by a very friendly and energetic Jack Russell terrier named Brady. When you reach out to pet him Schuman will ask if you want to take Brady home.

“He’s still trying to give that dog away,” laughed his receptionist, Tammy Neely, “but he’d be lost without him.”

Brady’s not the only energetic one in the office these days. Schuman, 59, looks forward to a much higher quality of life after an expensive and risky surgery last fall provided relief from a painful nerve condition he’s been suffering from for over 20 years.

Called “tic doulourex,” it’s considered one of the most painful conditions known. It’s centered in the trigeminal nerve that supplies sensation to the face, and the pain is sudden and so severe that sufferers wince when it happens, hence the term tic.

The pain usually lasts from a few seconds to a few minutes. Schuman compared it to being shot in the face with a shotgun. “When people tell me about nerve pain, I always ask if it was enough to make them cry like a baby, because that’s what it was like,” Schuman said. He credits his partner, Shirley Holloway, as providing life-saving care and encouragement through some very dark hours when it looked as though he was getting too sick to ever work again.

But even though surgeons at Swedish Hospital told him there were no guarantees, that the operation could make things worse, and despite the fact that he’d already tried a surgical remedy once before that only lasted a couple of years, Schuman went ahead with it. “I was fed up with the pain. It required medications so strong that some people thought I was drunk,” he said.

“It’s got no known cause but the pain comes from what’s essentially a short in the system, when the myelin sheath that covers the nerves gets frayed or damaged. They repaired that with a four-hour surgery that unlike the first one, where they just cut out parts of the nerve bundle, or ganglion, with a laser, this time they surrounded it with an insulating teflon shield. Tricky, but it worked.”

Schuman first noticed symptoms in 1988, shortly before he opened an animal hospital in Bellingham. Ten years later he was exhausted, selling his practice shortly before his first corrective surgery in May of 1999 at the University of Washington.

He spent two years recuperating, filling in for other veterinarians and finally, as he began to feel better, opened his Birch Point Dog and Cat Clinic in 2002 at the International Mall, 1733 H Street. But his symptoms began to re-assert themselves not long afterward, only this time they were worse, requiring stronger and more debilitating medication.

The condition gradually left him unable to stand without wobbling or even brush his teeth without considerable pain.

“As a vet I know the physiology, and what it means when the medications don’t work any more and the doctors don’t know why it happened or what to do,” Schuman said. “I knew how limited my options were.”

One option was to repeat the procedure he’d had done in 1999. “But I knew if I did that the problems would just come back.”

He credits Blaine physician David Allan with helping arrange for the procedure.

“After we got it set up I went ahead and the result was immediate. I’m pain free and medication free for the first time in 20 years, and it’s wonderful.”

The Friday Harbor native and Washington State University graduate said that the lesson for him was for people his age and older to be pro-active about their own health care.

“No one else knows how you feel, and no one else should make these judgments or decide for you what risks to assume,” he said.

Since the surgery Schuman is back at work at the Birch Point Dog and Cat Clinic, pain-free, happy and grateful to the physicians who helped him. The clinic is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays by appointment, and can be contacted at 332-2800.