Rock star Dick Wagner, who played guitar throughout the ’70s with bands like KISS, Aerosmith, and Alice Cooper, was devastated when he began showing signs of dementia. In 2007, at the age of 65, he suffered both a stroke and a heart attack, and soon after began having trouble walking and focusing his thoughts. It only got worse over time, despite his hard work at rehabilitation, and he began to mourn the loss of his talent for guitar. He thought he’d never be able to play again.
But after being referred to a neurologist in 2011, Wagner was diagnosed with something called NPH (normal pressure hydrocephalus), which is a buildup of spinal fluid in the ventricles of the brain. The excess fluid puts pressure on the nerves and can cause bladder malfunction and all manner of problems with motor skills. With a simple surgery to insert a shunt, Wagner says he became a new man.
“The stroke he suffered usually produces relatively mild deficits, and over time patients are able to resume most normal activities,” Dr. Joseph Zabramski said. “Dick cannot raise his left arm as well as he used to, but his fine motor function in his left hand is excellent. Music is Dick’s life and so he tried to resume playing but couldn’t. Once we had the shunt in place I saw the improvements. … Gradually, much to my pleasure, the old Dick Wagner returned.”
While the shunt surgery is not for everyone–doctors say less than five percent of people diagnosed with dementia actually have NPH–it can make a huge difference for those who are good candidates.
“He told me with big tears in his eyes that he wouldn’t be able to play guitar anymore,” Zabramski said. “His manager was just about ready to say, ‘Dick, this is it.’ We put a shunt in and the guy’s playing again, flying around the world and producing records [on his independent label Desert Dreams Records] and playing in concerts again. It made a remarkable difference in his life.”