Grateful for a positive outcome, couple establishes neurosurgery fund
In 2004, Mona Sweet had her first inkling that something was wrong. Her gait was increasingly wobbly. Though she had no pain or other obvious problems, this worried Mrs. Sweet, a retired medical records librarian, and her husband, Walter Sweet, PhD, a retired Ohio State University geology professor.
The couple sought help near their home in Columbus, Ohio, where Mrs. Sweet’s problem was diagnosed correctly as normal pressure hydrocephalus, a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid that causes pressure in the brain. After consulting their family physician, they chose to call Cleveland Clinic.
“We were sent to the right person over the phone,” Dr. Sweet says. “We were very impressed with that.”
Mrs. Sweet’s successful surgery at Cleveland Clinic in early 2005 by Mark Luciano, MD, PhD, and subsequent good health led to the couple’s making a planned gift establishing the Mona and Walter Sweet Innovation Fund supporting normal pressure hydrocephalus research.
The couple says they were particularly impressed by how quickly Mrs. Sweet’s problem was addressed and her rapid recovery. She was ready to go home the day after having a shunt implanted in her brain to relieve the pressure and eliminate her symptoms.
“The surgery was done very skillfully, promptly, and solved the problem very nicely,” Dr. Sweet says.
Symptoms Often Misdiagnosed
Although a quick recovery is typical with proper diagnosis and treatment, normal pressure hydrocephalus is treated properly only in about 5 to 10 percent of people who have balance problems or dementia, says Dr. Luciano, Section Head of Neurological Surgery at the Neurological Institute.
“The problem is that the symptoms of normal pressure hydrocephalus are very common and not always recognized,” he says. Symptoms often are misdiagnosed as general signs of aging, he says. “The classic triad is incontinence, memory problems and gait problems.”
The gait indicating normal pressure hydrocephalus is distinguished by slower walking and broad, heavy steps, he says.
“It’s known as a magnetic gait, because it’s as though someone has magnets on their feet.”
Other symptoms can include noticeably less interaction with other people and an inability to focus.
Causes can include the normal aging process and brain injuries. There is a higher incidence in people with vascular disease, he says.
How the Sweets’ Gift Will Help
Cleveland Clinic is the first site in the United States to take a multidisciplinary approach to diagnosing and treating normal pressure hydrocephalus, Dr. Luciano says. “We have coordinated, interdisciplinary care, and we have developed our own protocol for screening and treatment.”
Cleveland Clinic also developed and was the first to use a minimally invasive technique for implanting the shunt for normal pressure hydrocephalus, and it has one of the longest experiences with adjustable shunt valves that can be set within seconds using a magnet, precluding the need for additional surgery, he says.
The Sweets’ gift will support Dr. Luciano’s studies on the effects of cerebral spinal fluid on blood flow and his work in a new medical specialty, neurosenescence, in which neurologists and geriatric physicians are pursuing a better understanding of the aging brain.
“Gifts like this are so important. They help keep my lab running and allow for gathering preliminary data that can be leveraged into major support, such as from the National Institutes of Health,” he says. “We are recognized as international leaders in normal pressure hydrocephalus treatment and research, and we would love to maintain the momentum.”
This story originally appeared in the fall-winter 2009/2010 issue of Catalyst.
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