Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Adventures in cerebrospinal fluid leakage: part 5

Part 5 in a series about my wife's spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak condition. See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

TL;DR  My wife's central nervous system (CNS) spontaneously sprang a leak two years ago. Nobody knows why. Too little pressure in the CNS causes a raft of persistent problems, including nasty head pain that never goes away, hearing problems, mental fog, etc. We have been on the hunt for successful treatment since then, with some successes and a lot of failures.  

We are almost two years into this interesting and expensive adventure. We have learned a lot about CSF leaks and how to treat them. Professional resources have independently confirmed that the CSF Expert Team at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles is the world's best for this condition. As reported in earlier posts, this team and facility just happened to be preferred providers on our insurance. So the fact that we can use their services seems like something of a miracle.

My wife has been treated by this team four times over the past year. She has been helped, but she still has continual CSF leak problems. She constantly has a headache that can only partially be alleviated by taking caffeine and by lying down. She has developed hearing disparity and occasional mental fog. This is certainly survivable, but it seriously impacts life quality.

As mentioned in a note at the end of part 4, the imaging and blood patch procedures my wife had in February ended up improving her condition only temporarily. We later learned that during our stay in Los Angeles, COVID-19 was spreading rapidly through the area, although nobody realized this until a few weeks later. Fortunately, we escaped without contracting the virus.

In June we returned to Cedars Sinai for a fibrin glue patch. It's essentially the same thing as an epidural blood patch, but using fibrin glue instead of the patient's own blood. Fibrin glue is a product that is made from the stickiest part of human blood. They hadn't found noticeable leaks during two digital subtraction myelograms (aka DSM) during our February visit, so specialists surmised that any leak would be small enough for an epidural blood patch to be effective. That turned out not to be the case.

Conditions in Los Angeles were bizarrely different when we returned in June. Due to the pandemic, many are understandably reluctant to stay in hotels or Airbnbs, but we figured it was an acceptable risk. The Airbnb apartment we rented was just fine. It was within walking distance of the hospital. But the area, which had been crazily busy during our previous three visits, seemed like a ghost town in comparison.

Many businesses were boarded up, although some businesses were taking plywood off their store fronts during our visit. The Target store in the area had closed down permanently. Vehicle and pedestrian traffic was down to about 20%-25% of what it had been during previous visits. Some restaurants had reopened. Every business that was open had face mask and social distancing requirements. Other than the hospital, the one restaurant meal, and a couple of trips to the nearby CVS Pharmacy, we hardly interacted directly with anybody while in LA.

The first order of business was for my wife to have a drive-thru COVID-19 test. Cedars Sinai required the procedure to be done at their location within 24 hours of her scheduled surgical procedure. They told us that if we didn't hear anything, it meant that she had tested negative for the virus and we could show up for her procedure the following day. They actually ended up contacting us a few hours later to say that the test was negative. We had dinner at a nearby diner that was taking stringent precautions to prevent viral spread.

When we arrived at the hospital for the procedure the following day, we went through the check-in procedure with a few more precautions than usual, such as having temperature taken, answering questions, and wearing face masks at all times. Then we were taken to the same surgical center waiting room where I have spent many hours. Only this time, there were only three other people in the large room instead of 30-40 people. They had already made it clear that I could not come into pre-op or post-op, where I had been welcome during previous procedures. Once my wife went to pre-op, I was required to leave the hospital until they notified me that my wife was ready to be picked up.

It wasn't long before we said our goodbyes as my wife went to pre-op with a nurse and I walked back to our Airbnb apartment to spend the day working. I received some texts from the surgery team notifying me of how things were going. Eventually I received a text from my wife telling me that she wished I was with her in post-op, because she was terribly bored. Cedars Sinai requires patients who have had an epidural procedure to lie still for four hours in post-op. Our local hospital required only one hour.

Eventually it was time to pick my wife up. I drove into the pickup lane in the hospital's parking garage and waited a good 15 minutes before they brought her to the parking garage in a wheelchair. We were soon back in our Airbnb apartment, where my wife was required to rest and avoid bending her spine for two days. More boredom. We don't do much TV watching, so that kind of thing grows old, even with access to various streaming services.

On this particular trip, we got up very early one morning and drove straight through to LA from our home, stopping for food, gas, and potty breaks. We did the same thing on the way home. Leaving LA at 5 am during the pandemic made for the lightest traffic I have ever experienced in the area. We made record time.

Despite carefully following post operative instructions and being extra careful with her spine, within a couple of weeks my wife once again began experiencing CSF leak symptoms. The CS expert team has determined that another round of DSMs will be needed. They will apparently look at parts of the spine that have not been scanned in previous imaging, mainly because they almost never find leaks in those regions. The team hopes to discover one or more leak sources so that they have a clear idea of where to do surgery, instead of just working on what appear to be the most egregious perineural cysts.

We would like to hope that our upcoming trip to Cedars Sinai in a few weeks will be our last trip for surgical treatment at the facility. But it probably won't be. We still feel like we're on the right track. It seems that sticking with the expert team at CS is our best hope for achieving a permanent resolution to my wife's CSF leak problems. I will report outcomes in a future post.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Mr. Wood's Opus: Our daughter makes sure the retirement of her high school choir teacher didn't get lost in the pandemic morass

One day in February my daughter excitedly reported that the senior class choir officers at the high school had a plan to recruit former students of the school's longtime choir director to join in singing a number at the final concert of the year. Mr. Wood has been teaching music in the school district for 36 years and has taught choir at the high school for 27 years (the same school he attended as a youth). Our daughter recruited two of her brothers to sing for the surprise music number.

Then the pandemic occurred. Schools were shut down. The school district canceled all springtime events of any kind, including the final choir concert. The plan for a surprise musical number to honor Mr. Wood died too. Almost.

My daughter kept talking to me about finding a way to honor Mr. Wood. I suggested that she should contact the senior choir officers. But as the weeks passed, it became clear that nothing was happening on that front. One teacher at the high school said that due to the pandemic situation, many seniors, including some of the best students in the school, were struggling to fulfill graduation requirements and complete concurrent enrollment courses. The senior choir officers were probably too swamped to think about much else.

A few weeks ago my daughter asked me if we could put together a video choir for Mr. Wood. We have all seen video choirs during the pandemic. The way it works is for each performer to listen to a choir track through earbuds or headphones, and take video of themselves singing so that only their voice is heard on the video. A little research revealed that I lacked the necessary equipment, software, and expertise. But my daughter was insistent.

After making it a matter of prayer, I was prompted to reach out to professional videographer Jason Hadley of Masterpiece Images. Jason was willing to help. He had the equipment and know-how. Besides, he has kids who have studied under Mr. Wood. Jason even provided a drive share where videos could be dropped.

The next step was to obtain the sheet music, accompaniment track, and choir track for the selected song. Mr. Wood had been teaching students in all of his choirs this year to sing a choir arrangement of the ABBA song Thank You for the Music, so we needed music that matched this arrangement. This proved to be difficult to find.

After praying about it, my wife suggested contacting the school's theater director, Mark Daniels, who knows about digital performance media and related rights. Mark said that the school had coincidentally just purchased the needed materials and performance rights. Mark made arrangements for us to use these materials.

Then we had to recruit current and former students of Mr. Wood to take video of themselves singing and drop their video in the drive share. Our daughter reached out to current students via email and social media. I put out a post on social media, having no idea where it would go or how it would turn out.

Thankfully, my social media post soon made its way to some of Mr. Wood's former students, one of whom turned it into a group which quickly added members. Many people liked the idea, but for several days, the only video on the drive was my daughter's. It can be pretty intimidating singing a solo instead of being physically surrounded by fellow choir members being directed by a conductor.

Little by little, videos started trickling in. Some were family groups, including siblings, parents and children, and extended family, all of whom had taken choir from Mr. Wood. A few days before the deadline I was concerned about the low response. As I prayed one morning, I sensed the Spirit telling me to chill out. This was not my project or even my daughter's project. It was God's project and it was going to work out better than I expected.

At the same time, the social media group took on a life of its own. People started posting memories of their time in choir with Mr. Wood. Mrs. Wood became a member of the group. She later told us that she spent a lot of time crying in the bathroom after reading wonderful comments about her husband. She wanted to keep it a surprise for him.

The final two days before the deadline were filled with responding to questions and issues regarding technical difficulties people were experiencing with uploading their videos. I am a software developer, so I am used to troubleshooting technical issues. We were able to successfully resolve many problems. I was pleased with the number of videos that poured in just before the deadline.

Jason ended up synchronizing 108 voices into the Scott Wood video tribute choir. He said that he was worried about what it would sound like when it all came together but it sounded fantastic. It really sounded like a cohesive choir, despite being spliced together from nearly 100 individual videos. Here is the final product:


At one point during this project, I wondered aloud why my daughter and I should be doing this. We weren't formally in charge of anything. It's just that our daughter felt strongly that Mr. Wood ought to be honored. She didn't want him to end his distinguished career on a whimper during the pandemic. My wife said that it was clear that God wanted the project to happen. She surmised that our daughter and I were the ones God could get to do something about it. Besides, it was good for us. God pulled in lots of other people, who each did their part.

Our plan was to present the video to Scott Wood on the day the cancelled choir concert would have been held. Mark Daniels made arrangements for a very small retirement ceremony in the school auditorium that day. Due to pandemic restrictions, only a dozen people attended, including Mrs. Wood and several family members. My daughter and I were privileged to be among the attendees.

Mr. Wood was completely surprised by the event. He was deeply moved as he watched students spanning 30 years singing for him. The audio of the choir in the auditorium was simply amazing. We captured some of Mr. Wood's reaction in this video:


As the Spirit had foretold, the event was even better than I had expected. God knows how to do his work. Following the event, we added Scott Wood to the social media group. He was able to read and respond to hundreds of heartwarming and beautiful messages. Our daughter is very pleased that Mr. Wood now knows that his career was very consequential in the lives of many.

I am so proud of our daughter. This project wouldn't have happened without her. She didn't have to do this, but she felt that it was the right thing to do. Our daughter loves performing arts, although she is not a star performer. The rest of the school experience is kind of rough for her. This project demonstrates the quality of our daughter's character, which is far more important than any academic achievement.

To Scott Wood I want to say, thank you for your career. Thanks for blessing the lives of our children. May you enjoy many wonderful retirement years.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Adventures in cerebrospinal fluid leakage: part 4

Part 4 in a series about my wife's spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak condition. See part 1, part 2, part 3.

As the weeks passed following my wife's spinal surgery to close off the veinous fistula that was bleeding cerebrospinal fluid out of her central nervous system, her high pressure headaches abated. But then my wife once again began experiencing low pressure headaches. She didn't want to believe it at first.

One day after a few weeks of questioning whether she was really having CSF leak symptoms, I suggested that she take a caffeine pill to see what it did. She took the pill and soon experienced the same kind of relief she did before the surgery, as the caffeine caused vasoconstriction, increasing the fluid pressure in the central nervous system. She begrudgingly admitted that she must still be leaking CSF fluid.

My wife soon began once again working with the CSF Leak Expert Team at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, where she had previously been treated. After having yet another MRI done locally and then providing that image to the experts in Los Angeles, the team arranged for us to return to Cedars Sinai for another digital subtraction myelogram (DSM) and probable surgery. Having resolved a major leak on the left side of the spine, they suspected another leak on the right side that would require surgical treatment.

We drove to Las Vegas one day, stayed in a very nicely appointed Motel 6 away from all the glitz, and left early the following morning, arriving in Los Angeles around noon. We learned from our October 2019 trip that it's a really bad idea to drive from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on a Sunday afternoon/evening. Apparently more than a few Southern Californians go to Las Vegas for weekend getaways, resulting in very heavy traffic as they drive back home in time to get to work on Monday.

Mid February found us in a lovely Airbnb apartment just a couple of blocks from Cedars Sinai in West Hollywood. The weather was quite mild during our eight-day stay. We knew the routine well when we showed up for the DSM on a Monday morning. The DSM is a surgical procedure performed under general anesthesia, where they inject dye into the CSF fluid and do imaging to see where the dye goes. If they see something, they literally stop the patient's breathing for up to 90 seconds at a time to get the best image possible.

After a number of hours of pre-op and then the procedure, the imaging surgeon came to the waiting room to tell me that they had found no CSF leak. A spinal DSM can only be done on one side of the body at a time. While I was in post-op with my wife, Dr. Wouter Schievink, who is the head of the CSF leak program at Cedars Sinai came and chatted with us. Having found no leak on the right side, he suggested doing another DSM the following day to see if the left side had sprung another leak.


Tuesday was a repeat of Monday. Once again, when the imaging surgeon reported to me in the waiting room, he said that they found no leak on the left side. But he did say that they confirmed that October's surgery had been very successful. At first I was disappointed. But as I sat there waiting for the time when I could join my wife in post-op, it occurred to me that this likely meant that the leak was too small to see using available technology, small enough to be resolved by a spinal blood patch.

Over the preceding year and a half, my wife had had a series of spinal blood patch procedures, including a specialized blood patch done at Cedars Sinai last July. Each of these procedures failed quickly. After they found the veinous fistula leak in October, Dr. Schievink explained that the fistula leak was simply too large for the blood patch procedure to work.

We were not surprised when Dr. Schievink visited us in post-op that Tuesday and recommended another double blood patch procedure. He suspected that the small hole from inserting the dye for the October DSM had failed to seal, although such holes usually seal on their own for most patients. If that was the case, the two new holes from the two DSMs that had just been done would likely present the same problem. From his experience, he felt that the blood patch procedure would most likely remedy all three holes with no problem.

A couple of days later, my wife was once again wheeled into the operating room for her third surgical procedure of the week using general anesthesia. My wife does not respond well to narcotics, but it is common practice for anesthesiologists to add narcotic to the IV of surgical patients receiving general anesthesia to mitigate surgical pain. Having already been quite nauseous twice that week, my wife prevailed on the anesthesiologist to omit the narcotic.

My wife was much more alert and happy when I joined her in post-op than she had been on all of her previous surgical procedures. But she soon found her back at the sites of the blood injections to be much more sore than she had imagined. Fortunately, over the counter extra strength Tylenol sufficed in managing that pain.

The next couple of days my wife experienced a mild high pressure headache, which was helped by drinking dandelion tea, as recommended by the experts at Cedars Sinai. Not wanting to cause any problems with the procedure, my wife carefully followed recommendations to avoid lifting, as well as bending and twisting of the spine. By the end of the weekend, however, my wife had no more headaches, no hearing disparity, and no mental fog. It was clear to her that all of her CSF leaks were gone. It felt like a tremendous miracle after a year and a half of suffering.

We had to stay the weekend so that we could meet with Dr. Schievink the following Monday. The idea was to allow the spine to settle before doing a final exam. By the time we were meeting with the surgeon, my wife was experiencing some pain and weakness in her lower back and down the backs of her legs. Dr. Schievink said that this is a very common side effect of the spinal blood patch procedure and that it would gradually resolve over the next 2-8 weeks. When my wife wondered why she had never had similar pain with previous blood patch procedures, the answer was that those blood patches had failed, while this one was working.

Several weeks have now passed since we returned home. My wife is still being very careful about lifting, twisting, and bending. She is following recommendations to gradually increase these activities over a 90-day period. So far, so good. She still has some mild pain in the backs of her legs, but it seems to be getting a little better with each passing day. It seems like a small price to pay to be rid of the CSF leak symptoms.

As we reflect on the journey that began with a severe nonstop headache in August 2018 and led to three trips to California, we feel very blessed. It has been expensive, but we have been blessed to be able to manage the expense. Last spring we were despondent about the unsuccessful treatment that my wife had received locally, the expense, and the seemingly endless requirement for various types of MRIs. We thought there was no solution and we grimly considered the possibility that my wife would suffer CSF leak symptoms for the rest of her life.

We had searched the internet for better information for months. But a chance series of links took us to the nonprofit CSF Leak Foundation. While watching their annual Leakweek online seminar, my wife found Dr. Schievink and his program at Cedars Sinai. It seemed like an impossible coincidence when I discovered that Dr. Schievink and Cedars Sinai were both preferred providers on our health insurance. What are the chances of that happening?

Today my wife is free of CSF leak symptoms and we hope she remains that way. Dr. Schievink asked us to visit him again in a year so that they can do some before/after comparison of my wife's brain scans, and consult about her case. So I may post a follow-up at that time.

While we are very grateful, we also know that there are a number of people out there suffering spontaneous CSF leak symptoms who either don't know what condition they have or else have no idea of how to find solutions. Since this is a rare disease, most doctors and neurologists know little or nothing about it or how to properly treat it. There are many people who feel hopeless, like we did before we discovered the CSF Leak Foundation.

Spinal CSF leak symptoms include:

  • Positional headaches, which feel worse when sitting upright and better when lying down; caused by intracranial hypotension
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Neck pain or stiffness
  • Change in hearing (muffled, ringing in the ears)
  • Sense of imbalance
  • Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
  • Phonophobia (sensitivity to sound)
  • Pain between the shoulder blades

Cranial CSF leak symptoms include:

  • Drainage from the nose (rhinorrhea)
  • Salty or metallic taste in the mouth
  • Sense of drainage down back of throat
  • Drainage from the ear (otorrhea)
  • Cutaneous sinus tract drainage (CSF leaks into the sinus tract, which then creates a pathway to drain through the skin)
  • Loss of sense of smell (anosmia)
  • Change in hearing or ringing in the ears

If you know anyone hopelessly dealing with these issues, point them to the CSF Leak Foundation and/or the CSF Leak program at Cedars Sinai to explore whether they might find answers and perhaps complete healing. We are so happy it worked out that way for us.


Update 3/28/2020: Well, it was too good to last. My wife is once again experiencing CSF leak symptoms. The last blood patches were only temporarily effective. We are considering our options. So stand by for part 5 at some future point.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The brother I never knew ... until now

My parents hardly ever talked about one of my brothers. As far as I knew, my parents had five sons (and no daughters until daughters-in-law and granddaughters came along). I remember Mom once telling me that between my birth and the birth of my brother three years later, she carried to full term a baby boy who was stillborn. I was too young to comprehend the kind of pain Mom and Dad must have experienced as the result of this trial.

Once as a teenager I asked Mom where the stillborn child was buried. She replied that back in those days nobody did anything like that. The child's body was treated as biowaste. No name or other information was recorded. It was as if the child never happened. I still don't know the date, or even the year of this event. I couldn't understand Mom's seemingly deliberate vagueness surrounding this child until I had my own kids and grasped in some small way the emotional pain Mom still felt.

Nearly a year after Dad's stroke, he ended up in the intensive care unit when the antibiotic prescribed by his dentist caused a bowel perforation because Dad was also taking blood thinners. Dad wasn't terribly coherent during the first couple of days in the hospital. When he did become more lucid, he kept telling hospital workers that he and Mom had six sons. My brother showed Dad a family photo with only five sons. Dad was befuddled. He was absolutely certain that he had six sons.

Some years later, Mom confided in me that she had very much appreciated my brother and sister-in-law naming their younger son Matthew. She explained that this was the name she and Dad had picked out for the baby that didn't survive. That was news to me, although I was in my sixth decade of life by then.

Mom spent the last 2½ years of her life in a small eldercare facility near our home. Although this was a nice facility with caring staff, it was hard to watch Mom decline physically and mentally as she aged and suffered a long series of brain "microbleeds" and small strokes for which the medical industry could do nothing.

A few weeks before Mom's passing last autumn, I gave Mom a priesthood blessing following yet another small stroke that had left her a little more impaired than before. Suddenly I knew Dad was in the room with us. His presence was strong throughout the blessing. It is difficult to describe this to someone who hasn't had such an experience. I couldn't see Dad, but there is absolutely no question that he was personally present. I felt comforted and I know Mom did too.

But that wasn't the end of it. Over the next two days, I sensed Dad's presence about eight or nine times. Each episode left me feeling uplifted. I gathered that these visits were part of the preparations for Mom passing through the veil. But there seemed to be something more. Otherwise, why would Dad keep visiting?

Finally one morning when I again felt Dad in the room, it dawned on me that maybe I should ask whether he had a message for me. As soon as I asked, the words forcefully blasted into my mind, "I love my wife! I love my wife! I love my wife!" Having been raised a stoic northern German under Hitler's reign, Dad could be stiff and curt with Mom and us kids. But in this instance I felt a love that is as wide and as deep as eternity, laced with a tenderness that I can't describe in human terms.

Suddenly I felt Dad's words cheerily come into my mind saying, "I am here with your brother Matthew." I then sensed a pure being of magnificent brightness. He felt ... familiar. I realized that this person had ministered to me and my family many times in the past. In fact, I sensed that ministering to his siblings and their families was one of his chief duties. I asked whether Matthew's information should be put on our family history records and was told that this was not necessary.

Not long after that, we visited Mom at the care facility one day and found her unusually lucid. I told Mom about this experience and asked what she thought. She pondered a bit before her facial expression became quite pleasant. Then she said, "I think that's right."

I didn't feel Dad's presence like that again until my brother, my nephew, and I gave Mom a blessing a few hours before she passed away. We sensed many other loved ones from beyond the veil as well. It was a very tender moment.

The doctrine surrounding stillborn children is undefined. Perhaps that's because there is a great deal of variability and uniqueness among the cases. So, while I can't say anything about other stillborn children, I can say is that my brother Matthew is very much active in the spirit world. I'm grateful that he ministers to my family and I look forward to someday meeting him in a setting where we can more fully interact.