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Shunt procedure changes woman's life
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Joan O’Hare is joined by her son, John, outside of their Belleair Beach home.
BELLEAIR BEACH – A real life moment reminiscent of a scene from “The Awakening” when patients respond to treatment, happened for Belleair Beach resident John O’Hare.

His mother, Joan O’Hare, awoke and came downstairs the day after surgery, her arms outstretched and walking unassisted after being frequently bedridden for months.

“It was that dramatic. She wasn’t walking, then she was,” John said.

That moment followed repeated falls, stays in rehabilitation hospitals. trips to various doctors offices and finally an answer for the now 78-year-old mother of four and grandmother of two trying to get an explanation for what was wrong.

A neurologist gave Joan the diagnosis – it was Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus. It’s an excess build up of fluid in the brain that can cause three primary symptoms: shuffling or walking like your feet are glued to the floor, incontinence, and cloudy thinking or confusion.

“NPH is under diagnosed in the elderly because most people have never heard of it before. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and getting old are the things that first come to mind even from some medical professionals,” said John C. Drygas M.D., the neurosurgeon at the Florida Spine Institute in Clearwater who treated Joan. “If you or a loved one notices the three main symptoms of NPH, particularly the magnetic gait, see a specialist who can perform tests to either confirm or rule out NPH. It could change your loved one’s life.”

After imaging studies to confirm the diagnosis, Joan had a shunt procedure. A shunt is a thin tube implanted inside the head that drains excess fluid through a valve from the brain to the abdomen where it is absorbed back into the bloodstream.

Dr. Drygas explained the body makes about two cups of spinal fluid a day, which normally reabsorbs into the veins. With age sometimes the process is not as efficient so there is an excess of spinal fluid. The adjustable shunt like the one Joan has, which has been available for at least 10 years, offers a wider range of programmability than earlier shunts. Doctors can adjust the device using a magnetic device held over the valve, rather than the prior solution of putting in a new shunt surgically and sometimes not being able to adjust it enough.

What this means for Joan is that she can walk on her own and can be independent. She works out regularly at the gym, goes shopping and traveling including cruises and lakeshore trips with family in New England.

“I have my life back. I go out to lunch or dinner with my friends, and more importantly I’m spending quality time with my family,” Joan said.

According to a National Institute of Health website, NPH is thought to account for about 5 percent of all dementias. An estimated 375,000 Americans have NPH. This disorder often goes undiagnosed and untreated, according to the Hydrocephalus Association. The outcome and recovery from NPH varies. The Web site offers more information and links to resources.

Drygas relocated to Florida to begin his neurological career in 2007. He is also involved in developing the Neuroscience and Spine Institute at Largo Medical Center. His areas of interest include minimally invasive treatment of neurological disorders, brain tumors, neck and back pain, including cervical and lumbar disc replacement for motion preservation. Drygas is from New York originally where he studied immunology and molecular biology.
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