TRAVERSE CITY — Gordon Snowden’s hands clenched around the grips on his walker as he neared the open door. Most of the pain subsided weeks ago, but he’s still recovering.
“You OK dad?” asked Jennifer Stoll, one of his two daughters who doted over the man who still towers tall above them.
“Uh, huh,” he replied quietly.
Snowden, 85, paused for a moment before tackling the oncoming flight of stairs, adjusted his “Korea Veteran” baseball cap, and shot a smile toward his wife, Norma. He hadn’t walked down the concrete steps from his front porch since before he fell ill. His family wasn’t sure until just a few months ago if they’d see that smile again.
Snowden experienced a few episodes of neck pain a handful of years ago — aches the then 80-year-old wrote off as muscle pain. Then, in April, something went wrong. Jarring pain struck his throat, face and neck.
“It was the most intense pain I experienced in my life,” he said. “It was so painful, there would be no way you could live with it for an extended length of time.”
Astute doctors at Munson Medical Center suspected Snowden suffered from a rare neurological disorder that causes debilitating pain. They told the family their patriarch had glossopharyngeal neuralgia — nicknamed the suicide disease — a disorder which causes intense, unbearable pain and that has few treatments.
“The neurologist said ‘You need to get help,’” Stoll said.
She scoured the Internet for answers and found horror stories. Stoll began to pray.
“His body was a torture chamber,” Lara Snowden said of her father.
Doctors prescribed the highest doses allowable of Tegretol — an anti-seizure medication used to treat the disorder. Nothing stopped the pain which continued to worsen, Stoll said.
He lost 20 pounds, couldn’t eat and began to pass out when the most intense attacks ensued. A neurologist told Stoll her father had an extremely rare variation of the disorder that caused his heart to stop during attacks.