How a pioneering brain surgery helped a man who'd been addicted to opioids for 18 years find sobriety

  • The opioid epidemic claims about 128 lives every day in the US.
  • But doctors are hoping a risky type of brain surgery can be used to treat addiction and put a dent in that number.
  • We followed one former opioid addict of 18 years who found sobriety after undergoing the surgical procedure, known as deep brain stimulation.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Gerod Buckhalter believes a pioneering brain surgery is his last hope to overcoming his addiction to opioids.

Doctors will insert a long string of metal into his brain to control his cravings. The wire will go in the part of the brain involved in addiction and receive signals from a pacemaker in his chest.

Buckhalter is the first patient in a clinical trial at West Virginia University. If successful, doctors hope it could be rolled out more widely, and put a dent in the opioid epidemic that claims about 128 American lives per day.

Source: WV Today, CDC

The surgery comes with risks of infection, bleeding, and memory problems. Buckhalter only qualified for this procedure because he had tried everything else to get sober.

The procedure, known as deep brain stimulation, has been around for 30 years, andis used to treat conditions such as Parkinson's disease, tremors, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and epilepsy. But this is the first time doctors are using it to treat addiction.

For 18 years, Buckhalter was high on painkillers and heroin all the time. He tried all kinds of opioid addiction treatments like Suboxone, meetings, rehab, and therapy, but he always came back around to the drugs. "I would get my drugs and I wouldn't leave my bedroom," he said.

For the native of Dilliner, Pennsylvania, it all started in high school, when he dislocated his shoulder playing football and had to get surgery. He was prescribed oxycodone pills, and he "probably got them a little longer than I should have," he said. "Right off the jump I was addicted to them."

The opioid was first mass-produced by Purdue Pharma in 1996. With an aggressive marketing campaign, sales grew from $48 million to more than $1 billion in just four years.

Along with its generic forms, OxyContin was heavily prescribed for all kinds of bodily pain. By 2004, it had become a leading drug of abuse in the United States.

Source: NCBI

Buckhalter remembers the first time he took one. "I felt like I arrived," he said. "I was able to socialize so much easier. Everything that was a little difficult became very easy and I loved that." He added, "It gave me a feeling that nothing in this world could ever come close to. Just so numb and just so good."

Soon, Buckhalter was taking a month's worth of OxyContin — 120 30-milligram pills — in about five days. "Quite frankly, I didn't care if I died," he said.

Gerod's addiction became a lifestyle that followed him into adulthood. At one point, most of his salary went to buying pills, until he lost his job and couldn't afford them anymore.

"We started dabbling in heroin because it was cheaper and better," he said. "Then things really went downhill."

Buckhalter's mother, Gina, recalled a disturbing phone call she got from Gerod. "One day I was at work and he called and said, "Mom, I'm gonna die if you don't help me," she said. "He said, 'I'm addicted to pain pills and I have to take more and more to get the effect.' The amount of drugs that he was on was lethal."

"At the rate I was going, I was going to die without a doubt," Buckhalter said. "I was going to overdose. It was just a matter of time."

Now, he finds himself getting ready for surgery. He will be awake for about 80% of the long procedure.

Ali Rezai, the neurosurgeon performing Buckhalter's surgery, began by showing Buckhalter images of different drugs and taking note of the biological signals his brain would respond with. "We're able to stimulate and block that craving coming from the brain that's going to make him want to do the things that he does," Rezai said.

Hours later, the operation was a success. And for the first time since he was a teenager, Gerod has been able to stay clean. In August, he celebrated eleven months sober.

"Most of the time when I would have cravings, they would be so strong and they just would not go away. I would start obsessing about it. Now, they're fleeting thoughts," Buckhalter said.

More than 19 million Americans suffer from addiction. Doctors hope this surgery could eventually be used as treatment for some of those people. But it would most likely be used only in extreme cases like Buckhalter's, because brain surgery is risky.

"I think this is the first step in hopefully curing unhealthy behaviors, including addiction, which would obviously be a major breakthrough," said one of the doctors involved in the procedure.

For Buckhalter's parents, it's nothing short of a miracle. "Thank God they picked him," his father Rex said. "How did we get here to this extreme? But there's a light at the end of the tunnel now."

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