An initial scare, a revelation and, ultimately, a surgery that changes life for the better.
Andrea Beicht remembers vividly the bizarre, out-of-the-blue event that signaled something was wrong. It actually sounds like a special-effects scene from a movie.
“It was five years ago, and I was working at the police department, filing papers and sitting at my desk as usual,” says Andrea, who lives in Bayonne, New Jersey. “There was an officer standing in the middle of the room, telling a group of us a funny story about his day on traffic duty. My colleagues and I were enjoying the moment and laughing.”“All of the sudden, everything started dragging in slow motion,” Andrea explains. “I could see the officer gesture and my colleagues smile and laugh—but at an extremely slow speed—and I couldn’t hear a sound. At the same time, the entire left side of my body went numb.”
“Then, just as quickly as it started, it stopped—and I snapped back to normal.” Andrea says nobody in the room noticed any change in her or perceived there was a problem at all. She immediately called her doctor, who examined her, ordered a few imaging tests and referred her to a neurologist.
As many people might, Andrea fully expected to hear that she’d had some kind of stroke. Instead, her neurologist delivered an entirely different diagnosis: Andrea had a form of hydrocephalus, which is excessive buildup of fluid in the head. What’s more, Andrea was told she had probably had this condition from birth, yet here she was, being diagnosed at age 50.
As Andrea learned more, the diagnosis began to make sense. One of the key symptoms of normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) is a shuffling type of walk, where it’s difficult to pick your feet up off the ground. “I always shuffled my feet,” Andrea says, “for as long as I can remember. I just dealt with it and got by.”
According to Alan R. Turtz, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Cooper University Hospital, Andrea’s mid-life discovery of her condition was unusual. “Some people with congenital [present at birth] hydrocephalus may compensate and do fine for years. These individuals generally aren’t even aware that they have a condition,” Dr. Turtz explains.
“Then, for reasons we don’t quite understand, some individuals may decompensate,” and symptoms arise that prompt them to seek medical help. “We do brain scans and discover excessive fluid that’s probably been there for a long time.”
Sometimes Confused with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s
In NPH, a fluid known as CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) builds up in the brain’s open spaces, called ventricles. This excess fluid causes the ventricles to enlarge and distort the brain.
As Dr. Turtz explains, there are three classic signs of NPH:
- Gait disturbance — Difficulty walking, sometimes with the appearance that the feet are “glued” to the floor
- Forgetfulness or mild dementia — Short-term memory loss
- Urinary incontinence (bladder control) — The inability to control the bladder.
Sadly, because NPH symptoms are similar to symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, some people are wrongly diagnosed with those other conditions—and don’t get the treatments that could help them most. Some other people assume that their symptoms are part of aging that they “just have to live with,” and they don’t see a doctor until symptoms get severe.
The good news is NPH may be treatable, but requires a surgical procedure. The key is to get a correct diagnosis.
A Less Invasive Surgery
When Andrea was diagnosed, she and her neurologist decided to try to manage her NPH with medicine. Over the next few years, however, her symptoms gradually became worse. The three classic NPH symptoms were more evident: She was becoming forgetful, experiencing some bladder problems, and feeling less steady on her feet. She started using a cane.
Even more worrisome, about once a year she would have a seizure and collapse, winding up in her local emergency room. The last time this happened, her brother happened to be visiting, and he urged her to consider the surgery for NPH. “I agreed that I couldn’t go on living like this,” Andrea says, “especially because I live with and look after my mother.”
A few phone calls and some internet research pointed to the neurosurgery experts at Cooper University Hospital. Cooper also seemed a good choice because it was close to her brother’s home, where she would recuperate after the surgery. (“He’s at Exit 2 off the Turnpike,” Andrea explains like a true New Jerseyan.)
Andrea was also fortunate in finding Dr. Turtz, who is a nationally recognized leader in minimally invasive cerebral endoscopy. In most cases, NPH is treated with surgical implantation of a CSF shunt, a device that stays in the body and continuously drains excess brain fluid to the abdomen, or other body cavity, where the fluid is absorbed. Andrea, however, was a candidate for a less invasive surgery, endoscopic ventriculoscopy, through which Dr. Turtz was able to drain the fluid once without needing to leave a device in place.
Today, a Better Quality of Life
Andrea entered Cooper University Hospital on a Friday morning, had her operation that day, and was discharged the next morning. “I got right up and out of bed that Saturday and was feeling fine,” Andrea says. She was impressed with the courtesy and attention she received from nurses and doctors during her short stay at Cooper. “It seemed as though they couldn’t do enough for me,” she remarks.
Andrea stayed with her brother and his wife for two weeks after the surgery “so someone could watch over me,” but feels her recovery was nearly immediate and dramatic.
“All of the problems improved after the surgery, and I still feel great,” Andrea says. “I’m not forgetful. There’s no more incontinence. And I can walk much easier…and without a cane.”
“I can get around town, take care of my mother…do whatever I need to do,” she says.
For more information on the Cooper Neurological Institute, please call 1-800-8-COOPER (800-826-6737) to speak with a member of our physician referral and information service. Representatives are available Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. to assist you in finding the Cooper doctor that is right for you.