Her Struggles ‘All in Her Head,’ But She Wasn’t ‘Losing It’
Mind-Eye Institute Gives Brain-Injured Woman ‘My Life Back’
Lee-Ann Pullar of Durham, New Hampshire first considered her health struggles as possibly “all in my head.” What she didn’t know then was her symptoms were – literally — all in her head.
“I thought maybe I was just losing it,” says the 29-year-old woman, who did not immediately connect her worsening health problems with a series of prior concussions she had sustained, three of them occurring while playing competitive soccer in high school and college.
Her symptoms included constant headaches, reading and comprehension issues, light and sound sensitivity, nausea, extreme fatigue, fainting spells — even occasional loss of vision. “At times, I could see light but could not process anything; my brain would just ‘fatigue out.’ It was as if I were going blind, and that was scary,” she says. “My balance was off, too. I would fall backwards.”
It took a visit to the Mind-Eye Institute (https://www.mindeye.com) in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook – four years after her fourth concussion — to convince her that there was hope.
“After testing me, Dr. ‘Z’ said you are not going crazy; your symptoms are real and due to A,B,C,D and E,” Lee-Ann remembers. “Dr. Z brought me back to life.”
Dr. ‘Z’ is Deborah Zelinsky, OD, founder and executive research director of the Mind-Eye Institute, who is recognized worldwide for her studies of retinal stimulation and her innovative work in evaluating and addressing retinal processing disorders. She is known affectionately to her patients as “Dr Z.”
“Retinal processing” refers to the retina being composed of brain tissue. The brain (partially beneath a conscious level of awareness) takes in many external sensory signals (from eyesight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) and synthesizes the information, reacting and responding, depending on many internal sensory signals.
When intact, retinal processing enables people to have their internal body systems (such as balance, posture and pupil size) running automatically. This “cruise control” allows a person to understand and respond appropriately to the external world around them. If brain circuitry is out of sync because it has been disrupted – or, in the case, of younger children, perhaps under-developed — people can become confused about their surrounding environment and exhibit inappropriate reactions and responses,” Dr. Zelinsky explains.
“The retina is an overlooked part of the central nervous system,” she says, “and by changing the way light enters the retina, we can simultaneously affect body posture and biochemistry, as well as a person’s spatial awareness, movement, perception of surrounding environment and selective attention to sound.”
Through careful modulation of retinal signaling using customized therapeutic ‘brain’ glasses, the Mind-Eye Institute is helping patients who have learning challenges to develop new visual skills, and often helping those with damaged brain circuitry as the result of injury or disease to redevelop their lost skills, says Dr. Zelinsky. She has devoted her career to neuro-optometric rehabilitation and development of advanced methods for assessing brain function.
Back to Lee-Ann.
Her symptoms were not immediately apparent following her concussions, which included brain trauma due to a fall shortly after her graduation from college in 2012. That one, she recalls, is what later “caused all hell to break loose.”
“I had gone to the hospital after falling and hitting my head on bricks and was advised to follow up with a neurologist. I passed all the standard neurological tests, but what the doctor did not see was that I would be so fatigued after an appointment I would have to sleep the rest of the day,” she says.
Soon after college, Lee-Ann was accepted into a post-baccalaureate pre-medicine study program in Philadelphia and started working full time, but worsening symptoms forced her to drop out of classes and quit her job.
“I was always an ‘A’ or ‘B’ student, but I started failing classes. I couldn’t see the board in class; I could not process what I was trying to look at. I would study for hours and still not be able to retain anything,” she recalls. “At work, I would be nauseous and pass out.”
Making the situation worse was her growing inability to drive a car. The sights and sounds of passing traffic, street lights and signals and electronic signage – even the movement of the car’s windshield wipers when they were needed – proved too “brutal” on her senses, she says.
Some of the various health professionals she contacted for evaluation and treatment, including neurologists and pain-management specialists, tied her symptoms to mental and physical disorders –and like depression, migraines occipital neuralgia, which causes chronic headaches. Lee-Ann even underwent a series of cervical nerve ablations to treat her headache pain and then prolotherapy injections to the cervical spine to eliminate need for ablations in order to relieve her headaches.
“I also did vision therapy, vestibular therapy, occupational therapy, cranio-sacral therapy, acupuncture and chiropractic care,” she says. “A local optometrist in New Hampshire fitted me with different eyeglass prescriptions. I went from reading glasses to progressive lenses to bifocals. My eyeglass prescriptions were changing constantly – and drastically.”
And, yet, her symptoms persisted.
“Doctors had a difficult time understanding that my problems might all be related to my concussions,” because symptoms had not appeared immediately after the injuries, she says. Meanwhile, simple, everyday tasks and events – like taking a shower, exercising or meeting friends in a restaurant – were becoming an increasing burden for Lee-Ann.
“I would need a whole month to recover from lunch with friends before I could go back into a restaurant,” Lee-Ann says. “When you are in your 20s, you want to meet people, start a career, but it became difficult for me to be a part of anything. If I pushed too hard, my body simply shut down for a few days.”
As for exercise, “I couldn’t do too much. I would become light-headed and lose my stability,” Lee-Ann says. She also avoided grocery shopping because of “sensory overload.”
To get through her day, including part-time work first as a receptionist and then as a patient care coordinator, she learned to compensate, such as turning off lights in her work area when no one else was present.
But, sometimes hope comes in small packages.
For Lee-Ann, it came in the form of a book The Ghost in My Brain: How a Concussion Stole My Life and How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Helped Me Get It Back, published in 2015. In it, the author, Clark Elliott PhD, a DePaul University Chicago academician and specialist in applied artificial intelligence, details his eight years of struggles following a mild traumatic brain injury and his search for practitioners who could help him return to his old self. The book describes what he calls the “magic” work of the Mind-Eye Institute.
Lee-Ann read the book with the assistance of her parents. “It was spot-on in terms of my own experiences,” Lee-Ann says. Her local optometrist and physician had also seen the book and encouraged her to contact the Mind-Eye Institute.
She did so. That was in 2016.
“Getting through the tests [at Mind-Eye] was very difficult at first. I would get nauseous, exhausted. Just traveling on a plane to Chicago for my appointments would be tough. I would get into town the day before so that I could sleep as much as possible before my testing,” she says.
But she agrees the effort was worth it,
“Every time I returned to Mind-Eye I would be stronger,” she says, adding that since 2018, “I have been making significant progress.”
Although life has become much better for Lee-Ann, she admits she has a way to go before returning fully to the person she was prior to her injuries.
“I still have difficulty with reading, even with a large-print book, I fatigue out. For some reason, I become nauseous when looking at a newspaper or magazine. I continue needing a lot of sleep, and still experience some struggles in the workplace, such as looking at an Excel sheet.
But Lee-Ann remains grateful for small victories.
“I have achieved a key goal,” she laughs following a recent Mind-Eye appointment in October 2019. “I am actually able to go with my parents this time to visit downtown Chicago. Until now, that would have been difficult because of my sensory overload problems.
“I am so thankful, so grateful to Dr. Z and the Mind-Eye Institute,” she adds. “I would not be able to function as well as I do today without their efforts. They have been a life-changer.”
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