Advance with MUSC Health

A Beacon of Hope: How TMS Lifted One Patient from Darkness into Light

Advance With MUSC Health
February 21, 2024
Closeup of people holding hands in a supportive way.

Not many people find the trivial and the routine exhilarating, but for Nicole Christman, every normal activity, from her job as a respiratory therapist to shopping for groceries, brings sheer joy to her life after decades of battling depression and anxiety.

"I can go to work; I can go to the gym. It's these everyday activities that bring joy to my life because there was a time when I didn't think I would survive, much less be able to do those things," says Christman, 50.

After years of trying various medications and therapies and relapsing, Christman turned to MUSC Health for transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a form of brain stimulation to treat depression and anxiety and control impulsive disorders. Approved by the FDA in 2020, TMS targets the brain's prefrontal cortex, located near the forehead, with a series of electromagnetic pulses.

How TMS Works

On the first day, the patient is fitted with a special fabric cap with Velcro straps to be worn in subsequent sessions. The head is measured, and markings are made on the cap to identify the precise regions to be targeted with the electromagnetic pulses. Moreover, since only a specific part of the brain is treated, the patient has no lingering side effects elsewhere in the body that often accompany medications.

For Christman, TMS was a way out of life's darkest and deepest corners, where she had dwelled since adolescence, into daylight.

Christman speaks emphatically of the change: "As far as I'm concerned, transcranial magnetic therapy saved my life," she says. "To have clarity of mind and just to enjoy breakfast with my family is nothing short of a miracle."

By her own admission, breakfasts with family were few and far between during her childhood and adolescence.

A Life of Torment

Born to alcoholic parents, Christman describes a life of hell that went from bad to worse after her parents divorced when she was seven.

"My mother remarried a man who was physically abusive," she says. "My stepfather was violent and scary; he beat my mom in front of me and dared me to get help," she says. "My mom finally left him, and we moved to Florida to live with my grandmother. My mom got sick, and I helped take care of her. She died when I was 13, so I went to Crystal City, Virginia, to live with my father, who also was an alcoholic, and my stepmother."

During that time, Christman attended six different elementary schools and three middle schools. She never went to high school because, she says, she was completely broken.

"I would stay at home in bed. I didn't fit in with my father's upscale lifestyle," she says. "I had come from a background of hell, and suddenly I was expected to live the life of a normal, healthy kid. I couldn't do that. Although I did have counseling, I didn't take it seriously because of the shame factor."

She eventually got her GED and, at age 20, married, had a son and moved to Charleston, where she enrolled in Trident Technical College and earned a degree with honors from the respiratory therapy program.

Relentless Depression

But what appeared to be a stable life collapsed. By 2010, her marriage had fallen apart. She had quit her job at MUSC's children's hospital. Her son had left to move in with his father, and her own father had severed ties with her. Home was a homeless shelter.

"I had spiraled down to rock bottom," Christman says. "I just turned in my beeper one night and went home, got in bed and cried. My son didn't want me and didn't need me. I had been on every combination of medications, but I was trapped in the deepest, darkest corners."

Eight years passed. With the help of therapy, a new medication regimen and a vocational rehabilitation counselor, Christman emerged from darkness. She got re-credentialed and got a job as a travel respiratory therapist.

Life was full of possibilities until one day in 2021, it wasn't.

Once more, Christman was enveloped in debilitating depression — the deepest, darkest episode yet — indescribably painful, lonely and terrifying.

"Something hit me like lead, and it was killing me," she says. I could barely find the will to breathe. I was living with my son, and I was so ashamed. I wrote letters of apology to my family and attempted suicide several times."

One day, her son and ex-husband took her to lunch and urged her to try a new treatment. Her ex-husband said he would pay for her treatment.

A Return to Normalcy and Joy

Christman agreed to try TMS, and after the first treatment in February 2023, felt a difference. After her second treatment, she began to feel human.

"I felt like a normal, functioning adult, and then I felt joy," she says. "Now I am enjoying every moment of my life."

Nicole Christman

Nothing but good has come from her TMS treatment. She has had no negative effects, and she knows she can get booster treatments if needed. Moreover, the immediacy of TMS eliminated her uncertainty of its efficacy.

"For so many years, I took meds and didn't know if they would work. It was a guessing game of trial and error. TMS is immediate."

Christman is determinedly picking up the pieces and rebuilding her life, one day at a time. She's saving money and has a good job. Although her son and her stepdaughter have always stood by her side, she can truly enjoy her relationship with them and her ex-husband.

"I wouldn't trade my life today for the world," she says. "I would have done anything, even undergoing a lobotomy, to get out of that pain."

Christman says she would tell anyone considering TMS that it is absolutely worth it.

"My whole life, I've been looking for something that works and the chance to feel the world with opportunity, appreciation and love. And I finally have. Not a day goes by that I don't give thanks for my good fortune and good health."

MUSC Health's Brain Stimulation Clinic is located at 270 West Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant. To make an appointment, call 843-792-5716.