The Magic of Science and How TMS Saved Me

I used to hate magic shows.

Nothing frustrated me more than trying to figure out how the guy removes the beautiful woman from the box on stage, only to wow the audience moments later by revealing her—in the flesh—sitting in the theatre’s balcony with a big smile on her face. Magicians will never tell you their secrets, they will never disclose how the rabbit got in the hat, much less how he pulled the poor thing out of it. The stock answer, if ever asked, is a smug, “It’s just magic!”

Many years ago I attended a magic show where the showman singled me out of the audience to be his “assistant.” I climbed up on the stage quite sure I’d get the inside scoop on his tricks. I struggled to concentrate while watching the magician’s nimble hands snip a rope into two parts and then deftly join the cut ends back together. When he ceremoniously yanked on the rope to prove to me and to the audience how fantastic his stunt really was, my frustration at not catching how he pulled it off settled it — I was done with magic and magicians! I stopped attending magic shows from then on because they ticked me off far more than they entertained me.

But just as with magic tricks, things in life aren’t always what they seem.

I’ve since discovered that many things in my life have been an illusion, especially traditional treatment for major depression. After multiple, futile trials of medications that were supposed to be the real deal in restoring my mental health prior to and following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, my sister serendipitously came upon a magazine ad for transcranial magnetic stimulation. The headline read: “Treat Depression Without Medication.” I was desperate for anything to pull me out of my emotional abyss, and I had been convinced—along with millions of other people—that medications or ECT were the only therapy options available. The concept that invisible magnetic pulses penetrating my skull could erase all my misery seemed like it might be, well, magic.

Martha Rhodes Photograph

Martha Rhodes and Josie

The F.U.D. Factor immediately set in: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. But such is the case with all new technologies, that is, hoping it would work, trusting it was a bona fide, proven and effective treatment, worrying if it was safe. At the time I started treatment in May 2010, TMS had only been FDA cleared eighteen months earlier. There was no layperson literature available to educate me, and little to no anecdotal data regarding efficacy and/or risk. My decision to pursue TMS was based purely on crossed fingers and blind faith that the wizards behind the curtain would help me along the yellow brick road to achieving mental healthfulness.

As a patient who had given up on life altogether, I found myself struggling with that nagging FUD Factor and wondering, “How the heck is a four-second tapping on the outside of my head going to take all this hopelessness and sadness away?!” Swallowing a pill every morning is a tangible thing. You see it, you gulp it down with cold water, you know it’s going into your bloodstream and it will hopefully do the trick. TMS is far more discreet and mysterious. The fact that it’s based on invisible magnetic pulses automatically lends itself to the realm of magic in a patient’s mind. However, it may be invisible and non-invasive—but science proves it works. And my own full remission from depression with TMS therapy is further proof.

Many people in life are not what they seem to be, either—family, friends, strangers, and casual passersby included. In the midst of my own crowded life, I realize how alone a depressed person can feel even when he or she may appear to be upbeat and happy. Just as I did, other people can magically disguise their true emotions and trick the world by hiding the hopelessness and isolation they feel. But undiagnosed, untreated depression is a dangerous illness that demands serious attention and a therapy that effectively dispels the all-consuming darkness.

I’ve come to accept that it’s people who make the magic in life happen. In my case, it is a union of brilliant scientists, doctors, health care professionals, family, and friends who have proven this scientifically, philosophically, spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

I’m thankful for the genius and perseverance of the many Emory scientists, researchers, and administrators who have brought TMS to treatment resistant depressed patients such as myself. I’m not a scientist and never will be. I’m one of the stricken, an ostensibly “okay” kind of gal whose brain goes on the fritz every now and then, who gratefully accepted the Office of Technology Transfer Director, Todd Sherer’s invitation to come to Emory and work with Linda Kesselring on the “Put a Face On It” TMS project, and to meet Dr. Chip Epstein who invented the NeuroStar TMS® technology. While I had been an advocate for TMS for several years I didn’t know the whole story behind the development of this treatment, Emory’s role, nor what technology transfer was. The project was a wonderful experience for me and as a patient meeting one of the key developers behind the treatment that has saved my life—that’s pretty special.

TMS is no magical trick, it is the newest, safest, and least invasive alternative to traditional depression therapies that deserves the enthusiastic endorsement of the entire healthcare community for the sake of over 4.5 million patients who are suffering with treatment resistant major depressive disorder.

I am so grateful that I didn’t allow not knowing how TMS works to deter me from trying it six years ago. Things aren’t always what they seem, so it is in the hoping, trusting, and entertaining the mere possibility that something—visible or invisible—can be real and valuable enough to make life worth living.

I will never know how the magician works his illusions. He will never tell me. I must accept this as the unspoken law among the wizards of the world. But thanks to TMS, I’ve learned to accept the unseen, to trust that it is not for me to know how everything in life works, so that I can simply enjoy the show.

– Martha Rhodes

There are six videos on the Emory’s TMS technology listed below:

This piece is one in a series of four blogs related to Emory’s TMS technology. They look at the development and management of the technology, its impact, and this project from several points of view.