How a battery-operated spoon allows O.C. woman with Parkinson's disease to eat with confidence

By Orange County Register

Categories: Neurosciences
Pat Ferguson’s hand quaked as she raised her spoon from her soup bowl, but despite her unsteady grip she had no fear of splattering her pristine white jacket during a lunch out.

As her hand shook, her battery-operated spoon shook in the opposite direction to counter the tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease and a lesser known condition called essential tremor.

Whenever Ferguson, 75, eats at restaurants she brings her own special utensil whose technology uses motion sensors and algorithms to steady the spoon to her mouth.

During the meal, Ferguson replaced the Liftware device’s spoon attachment with a fork and speared her salad, which in the past, would have fallen in her lap.

“I can go out to eat and I just take my silverware and unabashedly use it,” said Ferguson, who lives in Huntington Harbour. “I figure it’s better than spilling all over myself.”

As many as 1 million Americans have Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder that causes tremors, stiffness and slowed movement. There is no cure but medications can improve symptoms.

Essential tremor is a far more common neurological disorder sometimes confused with Parkinson’s. It most often causes tremors in the hands.

Ferguson received the $295 Liftware device, with spoon and fork attachments, for Christmas last year from her son, Greg Mickelson of Irvine. In a clinical trial, the utensil canceled out more than 70 percent of tremors. The device, however, isn’t yet covered by Medicare or private insurers.

Mickelson learned about the product through a technology email after Google acquired the company that makes Liftware last fall. Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s mother has Parkinson’s and Brin has said he carries a gene that greatly increases his risk of developing the disease.

“When Google does something all of sudden it comes up in articles and technology magazines,” Mickelson said. “I had no idea it was going to have such a dramatic impact. She just can eat like anybody else.”

Ferguson’s father also had essential tremor and she developed the condition about 20 years ago. A registered nurse, she retired five years ago from her job as a consultant for hospital operating rooms because of the tremors.

About two years ago, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and started a successful medication regimen. She takes three different medications a day, with some targeting Parkinson’s and others for essential tremor.

But even with the improvement, she stayed away from one of her favorite pastimes, enjoying a nice meal out. Anxiety over whether other diners would notice her tremor or if she would spill led her to avoid restaurants. When she did eat out, she ordered dishes she could pick up with her fingers instead of what she liked best.

“You almost become a restaurant recluse, you just don’t want to eat out anymore,” she said. “It’s probably the best present I’ve ever gotten. It’s given me back my life.”

According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, depression is the most overlooked symptom of the illness, affecting up to 60 percent of patients. Depression may result from chemical changes to the brain as well as loss of independence or social withdrawal.

Dr. Sandeep Thakkar, Ferguson’s neurologist at Hoag Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach, said when his patients are screened for depression, one question they are asked is how they are doing with eating.

“That emotional well-being we get from socializing and eating is a quintessential part of mental health,” Thakkar said.

Thakkar said very few of his patients have purchased the device, likely because of a combination of cost and the perceived social stigma of needing assistance such as with a cane. He said he’s loved the spoon since he first saw it and has been happy to see Ferguson’s response.

“She was just so pleased and confident about it. You could see from her face, her expression, her walk, her speech that she was just ecstatic about it,” Thakkar said.

During lunch, Ferguson set down her Liftware and picked up the restaurant soup spoon. It rattled inside the bowl and she didn’t attempt to lift it.

“See, I can’t do it,” Ferguson said. “I wouldn’t get it out of the bowl.”

Ferguson also relies on her utensil for meals at home.

“I use it every day,” Ferguson said. “I have cereal in the morning. I couldn’t have cereal for awhile because I couldn’t keep it on the spoon. I now can even eat peas, which I couldn’t eat for the longest time.”