A veteran and grandfather stands up to migraine.
Jess Ayers enjoys spending his time with his wife and grandchildren fishing, camping, and being outdoors. But until recently, that was nearly impossible to do, due to constant migraine attacks.
After a decade in the Navy as an engineman on diesel submarines, Jess, now 68, became a long-haul truck driver. But his 26-year driving career ended in a rollover accident that changed his life. In 2016, while driving a dump truck hauling a load of shale, Jess blacked out at the wheel.
“All of a sudden, time just came to—not a stop—but a crawl,” Jess says. “I’m looking out the windshield of the truck, and it’s going over. It slams on its side, and the seatbelt kept me in the seat. I guess that’s what jerked my head and my neck… It was a good rattle.”
An accident’s lasting effects
Jess survived with minimal injuries, but shortly after the accident, he began experiencing migraine attacks that kept him confined to a dark room for the better part of three and a half years. At first, doctors thought it could be related to his heart, but a treadmill test and other exams showed his cardiovascular health was good. His primary care physician got him an appointment with a Veterans Affairs (VA) neurologist, but it took another five or six months before he could be seen. The neurologist put Jess on several drugs, but his migraine attacks were getting worse and worse.
The circumstances behind the crash meant Jess couldn’t resume driving until he went a full year without another blackout or seizure. He went from being an active man working nonstop to not working at all. The pain of the migraine attacks, coupled with the side effects of his medications, left Jess homebound. He would usually sit in a dark living room in his recliner watching TV and fighting the pain—along with other symptoms such as dizziness, blurred vision, and equilibrium issues.
“It’s like somebody’s stabbing me with a knife on the left side of my head, going across my left eyebrow, and my head’s in a vice,” Jess says.
“I didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t drive. My one grandson is saying, ‘Grandpa, let’s go fishing,’ and I can’t. That just tears me apart.”
Staying positive with a strong support system
In online migraine groups he’s joined, Jess has read the horror stories of other people who have had migraine disease nearly their entire lives, with little to no compassion from their loved ones. He feels lucky that the Ayers family never discounted his pain or made him feel like he was exaggerating. They witnessed him go from a fun-loving, outgoing man to being stuck in a dark room. Throughout his struggle with migraine disease, he has remained positive and hopeful that trial-and-error will help him find relief.
“I’m very thankful for my wife, Sherrie, for her full support,” Jess says.
“She has been more than understanding and helpful in this, and encouraging. She’s been my backbone when I didn’t have one, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.”
Finding pain relief without drugs
As a child, Jess, his sister, and two brothers watched their father, a World War II veteran, go through drug dependency. He’d served in the South Pacific and later spent four months in a VA hospital detoxing from medications due to a misdiagnosis. Jess and his siblings saw the struggle their father went through because of drug side effects. While Jess knows some medications save lives, he wanted to do all he could to avoid taking medications for migraine disease.
He tried the whole gamut of treatments in search of relief, but found only momentary reprieves. He went through three rounds of botulinum toxin A injections. The first round gave him nearly two weeks of feeling great, but he woke one morning feeling like a sledgehammer was hitting his head. The neurologist doubled up on the dosage for the next treatment.
The dozens of injections carefully placed in his head, neck, and shoulders were almost as painful as the migraine itself. “Everywhere he was putting the needle, it felt like someone was shoving a knife in my skull,” says Jess.
During this time, Sherrie was an incredible caregiver, driving him to appointments and caring for him as best she could when she wasn’t working as a teacher. It was hard for her to watch him go through so much pain and misery—and worse, have little hope for improvement. They bought an expensive mattress, and Jess used a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine along with adopting a ketogenic diet, but his migraine persisted.
“The one thing I’ve expressed to all of my doctors is frustration because I can’t find the right thing that makes me better, and I don’t want it to be drugs,” Jess says.
That changed during his next visit to the VA neurology center in Little Rock, Arkansas, where his new neurologist brought up the idea of using a noninvasive vagus nerve stimulator. The external, hand-held device activates the vagus nerve in the neck through the skin. It’s FDA-approved for acute and preventive treatment of pain associated with migraine pain relief by disrupting the communication from your brain to your body to help regulate the pain. This was the treatment Jess had hoped to find for three years—no pills, no injections, and no side effects. (See page 28 for more on this and other migraine treatments.)
After a weeklong wait, the device arrived at his home. Jess started using it right away, and within four or five days, he was feeling more relief than he had with the medications. The more he used the vagus nerve stimulator, the more pain relief he got out of it.
“Yesterday was a fantastic day,” Jess says. “I got up, cleaned house, and did dishes. I fixed the wife a gourmet meal. Last week, three days in a row, I cooked and cleaned… I’m getting better.”
Rebuilding his life
Since he started using the device seven months ago, Jess has discontinued some of his other medications, including calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) inhibitors and sumatriptan tablets. His quality of life has improved 70 percent, and he hopes his health will advance to the point where he no longer needs his blood pressure medication. He shares his success with the migraine patient community as much as he can because he firmly believes in the machine’s ability to treat the pain without the need for drugs.
“I believe anybody who suffers migraines should not have to be on a ton of drugs for a better quality of life,” Jess says.
He may be 68, but he has a long life ahead of him and two new great-granddaughters to watch grow up. He is back to remodeling his kitchen. Jess can even do a little bit of driving again and will hopefully be fishing with his grandson soon.
“Now I’m getting my life back together,” Jess says.
“I’m becoming a functional person who can do things to help my wife out around the house again—so we can go do things together and function as a family.”
— by Ashley Hattle
Migraine Xplained: migrainexplained.com