A Leicester grandfather who struggled with severe, treatment-resistant anxiety and depression for 30 years has become the first East Midlands patient to be fitted with a vagus nerve stimulation implant.

Johnny Spillane says the tiny device – which sends a small electrical stimulus into his brain – is transforming his life.

And he says it is giving him the strength to support the people he loves through the COVID-19 crisis. (Read his story below)

Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust is one of just a handful of NHS Trusts with a vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) service.

The special battery-powered ‘pacemaker’ style device is implanted surgically by a neurosurgeon beneath the left side collarbone and wired up to the vagus nerve at the base of the neck. Fitted as a life-long treatment, the device delivers regular pulses to the nerve, at intervals of around five minutes, transmitting to areas of the brain known to be critical for the treatment of depression.

The treatment is being pioneered by LPT’s electro-convulsive therapy service, based at the Bradgate Mental Health Unit. The team of doctors and nurses worked together to train and set up the VNS service, which is being supported by health commissioners for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.

It comes after the Trust hosted a symposium in 2018, bringing together experts from across Europe to explore its use in the UK and Europe.

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Girish Kunigiri, who is also an international speaker on this subject, explained: “Ours is the first NHS Trust in the UK to get sign off from commissioners and we have developed a partnership with neurosurgery services in Nottingham to implant the device.

“VNS is established as a treatment for intractable epilepsy and growing evidence highlights it as a successful long-term approach to treatment-resistant depression.

“We have developed a robust pathway with neurosurgery specialists in Nottingham and collaborated with them on the region’s first implant in September last year. Since then the patient has reported significant improvements in his mood and quality of life after experiencing treatment-resistant depression for more than three decades.”

Once fitted, the implant has a battery life of up to a decade and Johnny’s progress is being monitored and reviewed regularly by Dr. Kunigiri’s team and together they agree on appropriate changes to the level of stimulation the implant delivers.

“VNS not only results in better outcomes and quality of life for patients but we expect it to reduce mental health hospital admissions and reliance on community mental health services. In the long term it will also mean patients will need to take less medication.”

Johnny’s story

Johnny Spillane, 56, from Groby in Leicestershire, was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in his mid 20s and has been taking medication for more than three decades.

He spent three weeks in intensive care after attempting suicide, had a number of admissions to mental health wards including two nine-month stays, and tried a variety of treatments – including electro-convulsive therapy – without finding an effective treatment for his severe mental health needs.

His illness resulted in having to give up driving, long spells off work, the loss of his job as a manufacturing production manager and led to the break up of his marriage.

He said: “I came out of hospital and had to go through divorce and finding a new home. I had a lot of family support and work colleagues were supportive but I couldn’t go back. Then when I was discharged from the ward I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease – I had thought my tremor was medication induced.

“Dr Kunigiri reviewed my medication and we talked about different options before referring me for a second opinion. We spoke to a neurologist who agreed that VNS was the best option for depression and because it can have a positive impact on Parkinson’s symptoms.

“I had no hesitation about agreeing to VNS and I haven’t regretted it. I am now on the optimum level of stimulation for depression. Physically I feel just a little surge as the impulse starts up, and it changes my voice.

“My life just keeps improving. I used to need carers and couldn’t leave the house but I have been able to travel abroad on holiday for the first time in years, Before the Coronavirus outbreak I was having alterations made to my house and going out socially. I’ve also been participating in Recovery College courses and volunteering with two charities, The Shuttlewood Clarke Foundation and Age UK, promoting wellbeing for people with dementia.

“One of the best things is that I was able to start picking up my little granddaughter Imogen from nursery and feel independent again.

“For five years of my life I didn’t want to wake up in the morning and now my life is fantastic. My depression was so bad before, I didn’t get off the sofa for two years and now I feel really well and I’m able to help others who are struggling with having to stay at home during the pandemic.

“My sister and son both work in the NHS and I miss being able to see them and lmogen, my granddaughter but the lockdown hasn’t had a negative effect on my mental health at all.

“I have been decorating and gardening at home and now I feel I have the strength to support others, like my mother and my neighbours. I go shopping and help with their gardening. I’m going to bed at night looking forward to the next day.­ “