While strumming his guitar one day about 15 years ago, Kevin Gaither noticed something strange — his hand froze on the fret. Thinking it might be a fluke, he continued on as if nothing had happened, teaching as an English professor at South Louisiana Community College; writing music and lyrics, playing gigs with fellow SLCC teachers and students.
After eight months, he finally told his uncle, a physician, about his symptoms. Gaither tried to blame his “frozen spells” on getting his shoulder caught in an elevator. His uncle suggested that Gaither consult a specialist. He saw an orthopedist, who immediately referred him to a neurologist. While doing the walking test, Gaither tried to hide his shuffling symptoms. But, the perceptive doc suspected right away that Gaither’s symptoms could be due to either a brain tumor or Parkinson’s disease. A reaction to medication confirmed that it was indeed Parkinson’s, a degenerative neurological disease that leads to shaking (tremors) and difficulty with walking and coordination. Its sufferers eventually lose control of movement.
Diagnosed at the age of 41, Gaither, who has a master’s degree in English from UL Lafayette and Ph.D. in 20th century American literature from Texas A & M University, continued teaching at SLCC. Eventually, his vision started failing. Over six months, he became totally blind. He was diagnosed with double corneal edema, an extremely rare condition.
Perplexed, Gaither’s neurologist referred him to a specialist at the Baylor College of Medicine. One day, his doctor called him and said that he had just read about an unusual case where a Parkinson’s patient of the same age had gone blind. It turned out that the blindness was caused by a reaction to medication. “I was the sixth person in the history of the world who had that happen,” he says.
With the problem solved and his sight back, Gaither returned to SLCC full-time as an English professor. But gradually, his spells worsened. His physician referred him to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The doctors decided to try deep brain stimulation, where electrodes would be surgically implanted into his brain and controlled by a generator inserted in his chest.
In November 2011, Gaither went to MD Anderson for the surgery. The equipment for the procedure had just arrived that day. “I became the guinea pig for them,” he says. During the 24-hour operation, surgeons removed the top of Gaither’s head and implanted four neurotransmitters inside. It was a complete success. “This was as close to normal as I’d been in 15 years,” he reports.
Two months later, Gaither was back at work. “I love my job, I love my job,” he says. “You get this rewarding experience that you have with the students that you can’t get anywhere else.” Although he had a couple of setbacks where his control had to be tweaked, he is now teaching full time and playing music again. In fact, Gaither, who has written over 100 songs, is recording an album with his band. He is ready to get back into shape and start playing basketball and fishing again.
Gaither, now 55, has been an inspiration to his students at SLCC. Former pupil Aaron Broussard, who took two of Gaither’s classes and did jam sessions with him, has nothing but praise for his mentor. “One of the things that really impresses me about him is his continued optimism,” Broussard says. “He just never has a bad day.”
What makes Gaither such a popular prof? “I keep it young,” he says. “I try to keep up with what the students are into so I can talk to them. When I mention Bob Marley and Tupac Shakur, they just light up.”