'I just want to scream it out and tell every Parkinson’s patient to find out if you’re qualified and do the studies.'

Margaret Petterson never stopped painting after Parkinson’s disease took ahold of her body, but something changed for the celebrated local artist.

“My paintings during that time -- it’s not that they weren’t good -- but they were dark,” she said recently. “There was nothing wrong with them, but they were just missing their sunshine.”

Petterson’s work, which has earned awards from juried art shows, hangs in embassies and corporate collections around the country. She works out of a home studio along the Wappoo Creek, listening to pop radio and capturing the Lowcountry in oil paintings and monotypes, a type of print-making that transfers wet paint to paper.

Margaret Petterson paints in her home studio. Photos by Anne Thompson.

Petterson noticed a problem in 2006, following surgery on both feet. She first assumed the tremor in her arm came from being so sedentary – but then realized it was just one side.  

When she received her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous system disorder, Petterson decided to enroll in any clinical trials available at MUSC. And the grandmother of three committed to keeping her sense of humor along the way.

She began with evaluation exercises – touching her thumb to her index finger and turning her hands over and back again. She joked to the researchers that they should set the tasks to music, like a neuroscience Macarena.

Despite her positive attitude, Petterson’s symptoms progressed. She needed her husband or sister to sit with her at night, because she worried about falling. Medications made her hands jerk, and her clothes and walls were splattered with paint at the end of each day.

“I wanted anything that was going to make me feel better,” Petterson said. “I did every study you can imagine.”

She used special pens and checked how she felt every half-hour. She inhaled medicines. She tried computer games. And then, one by one, each of her doctors suggested something more invasive: deep brain stimulation.

The process would involve two surgeries to install a device with two leads that deliver electrical stimulation to areas in the brain that control movement. Although this particular device was investigational, MUSC has been offering deep brain stimulation since 2001, according to Petterson’s physician, Dr. Gonzalo Revuelta. “What’s neat about DBS is it isn’t destroying brain tissue; we’re stimulating it,” Dr. Revuelta said. “There’s no permanent brain lesion, and you can keep changing how it’s stimulated to get it just right.”

The treatment replaces the need for medication, while also curbing tremors. Margaret would have to shave her head. And her new device would come with a remote control. 

She and her husband, Harold, decided to cope in Margaret’s own language: with laughter. Harold bought her a Raquel Welch wig and liked to tell people that now he had a remote for his television and his wife.

Ten years after her diagnosis, Petterson became MUSC’s first patient in a new national deep brain stimulation study. And for the first time in a decade, she feels like herself.

“Sometimes I forget how it was,” Petterson said.  “I’m not where I should be, in that I’m not like I was years ago, when I should’ve gotten worse by now.”

In fact, she went from taking 20 pills every day to just one. And she went back to those paintings from the early days of her diagnosis and began adding bright colors. She wanted to give them her signature sunshine.

Each year Petterson donates work to the Putting for Parkinson’s golf tournament and dinner auction, an event that honors local high school coach Tim Touchberry, another deep brain stimulation success story.  Touchberry’s daughter-in-law, event organizer Jamie Touchberry, met Petterson at a support group for family members and told her about the tournament.

“She jumped right in,” Jamie said. “She helped step up what we could offer at the auction, and she also spread the word for our event.”

Petterson’s paintings have fetched thousands of dollars at Putting for Parkinson’s, which raised nearly $90,000 last year alone for research at MUSC’s Murray Center for Parkinson’s and Related Disorders. Beyond her artistic donations, Petterson wants to spread the word to anyone who will listen.

“I just want to scream it out and tell every Parkinson’s patient to find out if you’re qualified and do the studies,” Petterson said. “As far as we’re concerned, there’s no other place than MUSC. They might not be able to cure it yet, but they can control it.”

Putting for Parkinson’s
golf tournament and dinner auction

The Golf Club at Wescott Plantation
Saturday April 29, 2017
Tournament at 1 p.m.
Dinner auction at 6 p.m

Tickets & Sponsorship Information