Dr. Christopher Ducko (right) implanted a diaphragm pacing system to help extend the life of ALS patient Scott Murphy (left).

Scott Murphy, a Massachusetts father of three, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2004. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurological disease that leads to a gradual loss of muscle function. As ALS progresses, patients lose their ability to perform the most basic tasks, like walking, swallowing and even breathing. Most patients with ALS only live 3-5 years after diagnosis. Miraculously, Scott has been able to survive well beyond that; however, continued weakening of his chest muscles and diaphragm (the muscle that helps draw air into the lungs) recently posed a new threat to his health.

Until recently, the only way to help patients like Scott was the use of a mechanical ventilator, which can be confining and costly. But a Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) surgical team, led by Dr. Christopher Ducko in the Division of Thoracic Surgery, has given Scott and other ALS patients a better option in delaying their need for a ventilator. In October 2012, BWH became the first hospital in New England to implant a diaphragm pacing system in an ALS patient.

During the surgery, small electrodes, which condition the weak diaphragm muscle and improve its function, were implanted in Scott’s diaphragm. Research indicates that this will help Scott breathe more easily and postpone his need for a ventilator by up to 18 months. Additionally, unlike a ventilator, the diaphragm pacing system operates quietly and makes it possible for Scott to be mobile.

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