It took 20 years of searching following a 30-plus-foot fall from a cliff before U.S. Air Force Veteran Bich Thuy Callens could find a health care professional who understood the symptoms and struggles that prevented her from feeling – and being – herself again. She found that person at the Mind-Eye Institute in Northbrook, Illinois.
“I recall leaving Dr. Zelinsky’s office after my initial Mind-Eye appointment, feeling hopeful that I was actually going to get better,” says Bich Thuy. “Dr. Zelinsky was the first – and only – professional to fully understand what was happening to me. She prescribed special lenses that could calm down my nervous system.”
Bich Thuy was referring, of course, to optometrist Deborah Zelinsky, OD, founder and executive director of research for the Mind-Eye Institute.
Dr. Zelinsky and the entire Mind-Eye Institute team have achieved worldwide recognition for their use of therapeutic eyeglasses (Brainwear™), lenses, color filters, and other optometric interventions to vary the amount, intensity and angle of light that passes through the retina. In so doing, they have lessened symptoms and restored comfort to patients needing to rebuild their visual processing skills compromised by brain injury, stroke, and other neurological disorders. The unique optometric skills Dr. Zelinsky teaches at the Mind-Eye Institute also have helped develop new processing capabilities in patients with attention and other learning deficiencies.
“BrainwearTM glasses are not intended to sharpen eyesight to 20/20. Instead, they improve retinal processing, which is part of visual processing,” explains Dr. Zelinsky. “They work by bending light in diverse ways across the retina. The light triggers chemical changes that eventually result in electrical signals, which propagate through the optic nerve for further brain processing.”
In fact, the retina is composed of brain tissue and helps route information through multiple brain pathways, Dr. Zelinsky says. “Variance in light signals can create new brain signaling pathways that are uncorrupted by injury or disease or the signals can rebuild (or more often, circumvent) damaged ones, thereby enhancing a patient’s overall visual skills, including spatial awareness and perception.”
When functioning efficiently, visual processing enables people to understand and interact appropriately to the world around them. When brain circuitry is disrupted due to injury or neurological disorders, people can often become confused about their surrounding environment and oftentimes exhibit inappropriate reactions and responses to movement, sounds and light, Dr. Zelinsky says.
Bich Thuy knew something was wrong soon after her fall from the cliff. The impact had rendered her unconscious, but she was treated only for a broken foot – not a traumatic brain injury.
“After my fall, I began noticing that sudden sounds like a car alarm going off or a person’s voice behind me would startle me. If I saw someone walking toward me and that person was talking or the environment around me was noisy and chaotic, I had to use every ounce of effort not to cringe away from the person’s approach,” Bich Thuy says. She also sustained memory loss – “even loss of childhood memories” — and began failing to recognize faces of longtime clients for whom she provided services as a certified massage therapist after leaving the military.
Bich Thuy remembers becoming mentally lost on occasions at her own workplace. “I would walk outside a door and suddenly not know where I was. I would have to talk myself through the situation: ‘You were in the massage therapy room and now you are moving out to the hallway.’”
“Time may heal all wounds,” according to the common adage, but not in Bich Thuy’s case. Her symptoms gradually worsened with time.
“I developed light and sound sensitivity, problems with depth perception, vertigo (the room would seem to spin), headaches, nausea, anxiety, and trouble walking – I would drift to my left and sometimes could not get my legs to move. I also experienced difficulties connecting to and conversing with other people, emotional problems – I would cry uncontrollably for no apparent reason, and changes in my personality. I would sometimes become angry about trivial things and use swear words, which are so unnatural to me. I would think, ‘What is happening to me?’” she says.
Bich Thuy knew her peripheral eyesight was “off” as well. “I could not process movement around me and my nervous system would skyrocket when moving my head around. I was comfortable only when just sitting and watching a movie on my small laptop. I would set the computer up directly in front of me because then I would not have to move my head or body and could give my brain an opportunity to decompress.”
Most troubling to Bich Thuy were her loss of concentration and extreme fatigue. A trip to the food store often would take up to four hours – “I would keep returning down aisles, multiple times, going round and round the store, over and over again, because my brain could not determine what I needed or make decisions. Eventually, I would realize that I was struggling, and that hours had passed.”
Upon leaving the store, “I would be so exhausted I oftentimes would have to sleep in my car for a few hours before I could drive home. When I did get home, I would be so distraught and on edge that it was all I could do just to get into the house. I would place the groceries on the floor at the door because I did not have any resources left in me to put the food away. I would then need to sit in front of the computer without moving and watch a movie until I could decompress enough to function again. My system was completely overloaded and overwhelmed. Whatever food needed freezing would often go bad. I kept thinking, ‘Maybe I just lack the willpower to get things done or I am just lazy.’”
But, in truth, Bich Thuy had become a “completely different person” after her fall and head injury.
“I lost the ability to keep myself organized. I kept messing up times and dates, and that made keeping appointments difficult,” she says. “I would keep second-guessing myself, wondering, ‘Did I hear right? Did I remember correctly? Why did I say that?’” Sleeping also was an issue. “My vertigo would intensify when I lied down. So, I would stay up until 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. until I became so exhausted, the vertigo no longer mattered.”
During her years of struggles, Bich Thuy tried a variety of alternative solutions – “tai chi, yoga, mindfulness, acupuncture, meditation, aromatherapy. Although they provided me benefits, none offered me any permanent solution.”
By the end of 2018, Bich Thuy says her symptoms had become so debilitating that basic functions of daily living were barely possible. “This was a horrible way to live,” she says. “I had tried so many things, but instead of getting better, I seemed to be on a downward slope. I had lost hope, lost reason to believe that things would ever get better.”
That is, until a local optometrist recommended the book, The Ghost in My Brain, published in 2015. In the book, author Clark Elliott, Ph.D., an academician at DePaul University in Chicago, details his successful, two-year journey of recovery following a severe traumatic brain injury – a journey that included appointments with Dr. Zelinsky and with cognitive restructuring specialist Donalee Markus, PhD, of Designs for Strong Minds in Highland Park, Illinois.
“I was excited because many of the symptoms Dr. Elliott describes in his book were much like my own. So, I contacted the Mind-Eye Institute,” Bich Thuy says.
She calls her first visit to the Institute “mind-blowing.” The comprehensive testing that the team did there indicated my brain was unable to place sound in space; my eyesight and hearing were out of sync. Dr. Zelinsky was the first professional to connect the dots, to understand what was underlying all my symptoms.”
“Normal visual processing requires central and peripheral eyesight to function in synchronization with listening, as well as with the other sensory inputs. Visual processing also requires internal visualization and planning in order for one to respond appropriately to changes in one’s environment,” Dr. Zelinsky explains.
Since wearing her prescribed, Mind-Eye “brain” glasses, Bich Thuy is observing improvements in her ability to function.
“I am able now to drive to the store and not have to rest in the car before walking in or sleep several hours after leaving the store,” she says. “I am also regaining my ability to talk to people. With the glasses, I can focus on what they are saying without losing mind; my brain no longer has to struggle so hard to keep sight and sound coherent. And I am able to start reading again – one of the enjoyable hobbies that I had to give up because of my head injury.”
Today (July 2021), Bich Thuy is several “brain” glass prescriptions away from her first Mind-Eye appointment in 2020, but positive changes continue to happen for her. “I am more resilient now. I can do more than one activity during the day. I can do laundry and cook dinner or go shopping and put the groceries away. I am also able to speak more coherently.”
Bich Thuy admits, “I still have a long way to go,” but says her journey to recovery is a dynamic one. “With every new eyeglass prescription, I feel another part of my brain healing. After two decades of being told nothing is wrong with me, I have finally found a team of professionals who understand what happened to me and are able to help me.
“The Mind-Eye Institute has given me hope for the future. I now have the tools for becoming myself again.”