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Success Stories, Traumatic Brain Injury

‘We Can Help You!’ Words Give Hope to Brain-Injured Patient

Mind-Eye Institute Helping Hallie to Regain Her Life

“I struggled with symptoms for nearly seven years. I had no money left. I was destitute. I could not work. Finally, I was able to schedule an appointment at the Mind-Eye Institute, and a technician there tells me, ‘We can help you.’ Hearing those words after years of rejection by some of the best specialists in the country brought tears to my eyes. I knew right then I was not crazy; I was not alone. The Mind-Eye gave me hope.”

That is how Hallie van Straaten of Chicago, Ill., recalls her first visit to the Northbrook, Illinois clinic of the Mind-Eye Institute in April 2020. She came there as victim of a traumatic brain injury, which she sustained in a motor vehicle crash in Colorado while driving back from her father’s funeral in 2013. She was only 25 years old at the time. Little did she anticipate then the uphill, personal battle she was about to begin – a battle that would span literally years.

“I thought I could just walk away from it (the accident), but during the next four months I began experiencing debilitating symptoms. I was no longer acting like myself. I was nauseous 24-7. My eyes would unknowingly drift so that people thought I was looking at something on their shirt or their tie rather than at them when we were conversing – a real problem because I worked in customer relations at the time. I also became reactive, emotional, crying for no reason and prone to outbursts of anger.”

As her symptoms worsened, Hallie spent “23 hours a day in bed” with the lights off because she had developed light sensitivity – photophobia. She stopped listening to music; sound bothered her. Once an avid reader who also enjoyed using social media to interact with friends, she could no longer read and was unable to carry on conversations.

“I simply could not comprehend – or understand – new information. I had neither the attention span nor the tolerance . That is why I only watched television reruns – seeing the same programs over and over and over again,” Hallie remembers.

She also “avoided everyone, had panic attacks, and lost special relationships I had at that time. My life completely unraveled.”

Hallie made appointments with rheumatologists, pain experts, “two or three neurologists,” optometrists, and trauma and cognitive therapists “at some of the most prestigious centers and facilities in Colorado” and later in the Chicago area after moving back in 2017 to live with family. “But these specialists all told me [in so many words], ‘We have done what we can. You will just have to live with it (brain injury),’” Hallie states.

“I tried working again after returning to Chicago. I would start off well, but then would struggle. I had lost my executive skills and just found it difficult even getting up and going to work,” Hallie says. “Until my brain injury, I always had been a good employee, never once being fired. But now, with all my symptoms, I kept getting dismissed from my positions.”

Hallie first learned about the book Ghost in My Brain from an optometrist she saw in Colorado. In the 2015 book, Clark Elliott, Ph.D., a DePaul University Chicago professor, writes about his own struggles with traumatic brain injury and describes in detail the successful efforts of Deborah Zelinsky OD, founder of the Mind-Eye Institute, and Donalee Markus Ph.D., of Designs for Strong Minds in Highland Park, Ill., to rebuild his life.

“My mother read the book, because I could not, and told me, ‘this (Dr. Elliott’s experience) is exactly what you are going through,” Hallie says. The book provided her the impetus to contact the Mind-Eye team.

Hallie wishes her family had known sooner about the work of the Mind-Eye Institute — not simply because of her brain injury but because of her earlier struggles with learning problems in school. These were problems related to difficulties in connecting “what I was seeing to what I was hearing,” she says. However, in high school, she was misdiagnosed as simply being behavior-disordered and sent to a residential treatment facility for troubled teens.

“Parents need to know what the Mind-Eye Institute can do for children who are frustrated in school. Many of these children have problems that can be readily corrected,” says Hallie. She describes the Mind-Eye team’s work as “performing miracles over there.”

In fact, the Mind-Eye Institute has developed an international reputation for its advanced, scientific approaches to assessing brain function and building – or rebuilding – patients’ visual processing skills.

Visual processing enables people to respond appropriately to changes in the environment. That environment can include aromas, facial expressions, gestures, words heard, computer screens and scrolling websites, even traffic patterns and sports strategies. Actions and behaviors are based on decisions and predictions influenced by a person’s understanding of their environment and understanding comes from the visualization process, says Dr. Zelinsky, who serves as the Mind-Eye Institute’s executive director of research.

“Visualization is a developed skill, using new experiences to compare and contrast with previous ones. But this processing capability can be readily disrupted by traumatic brain injury, concussion, strokes, and other neurological disorders. In children – and adults – with learning problems, visual processing skills are oftentimes under-developed,” Dr. Zelinsky states.

At the Mind-Eye Institute, emphasis is on testing the linkage between a person’s eyesight and hearing. Loss of sensory synchronization (how the eyes and ears perceive location of surrounding objects) can affect visual processing and lead to multiple symptoms — vertigo, headaches, light and sound sensitivities, anxiousness and stress, attention and comprehension problems, an inability to read and interact normally in social situations, memory problems, and a general feeling of not being oneself.

Mind-Eye optometrists Carla Adams, OD, and Dan Myers, OD, told Hallie that her brain injury had lessened her ability to visualize. “They asked me to close my eyes and visualize a light bulb,” Hallie says. “Now, I know what a light bulb looks like, but I could not picture it in my mind. That was scary, yet not surprising. I had not had a dream since the car accident.”

Dr. Zelinsky says that comprehensive Mind-Eye testing results in patient prescriptions for highly individualized, therapeutic “brain” glasses. “Brain glasses can balance the activity between a person’s central and peripheral receptors in the retina, which is composed of brain tissue, and improve the synchronization between hearing and seeing,” she says. “The glasses achieve this by varying the way light passes through the retina. We work with glasses that allow a person’s perception to match where they hear and see an object.”

For Hallie, “brain” glasses – as well as a set of punctal plugs inserted in the tear ducts of both eyes — have since quieted, or significantly lessened, many of her worst symptoms. “I have not been nauseous for months. I am also sleeping better, am less explosive, my reading skills are coming back, and my relationships, especially with my mother, have greatly improved,” she says. “The plugs seem to have taken Hallie out of the “fight-or-flight” mode that she had been stuck in,” adds Deborah Zelinsky.

Hallie remembers “overdoing it a bit” after putting on her first pair of “brain” glasses. I watched five new movies in a row – and then I collapsed,” she laughs. “I realized then I have to take my recovery somewhat more slowly.”

She says she would “recommend Mind-Eye to anyone and everyone, especially to parents with a child who has learning or behavior issues. Frankly, the Mind-Eye team has given me my life back.”