Woman Describes Battle with Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO)

Cealie Lawrence (right) has been battling a rare autoimmune disease affecting her eyes, spinal cord and brain. The symptoms were so debilitating, she moved in with her son Robert (left) to cope. Image courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch.

60-year-old Cealie Lawrence was working as a server at a local restaurant in the Columbus, Ohio area when she experienced a sudden change in her vision.

“I couldn’t see anything but darkness and a little light,” Lawrence said. “I panicked.”

Essentially blind in both eyes, she was taken by her co-worker to a local hospital where healthcare workers ran numerous tests on her, including a spinal tap. Unfortunately, the cause of her sudden blindness couldn’t be found – so she spent a week in hospital.

Lawrence was eventually diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD), a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks the optic nerves, spinal cord, and the brain. The condition can lead to blindness and even paralysis. It is also known as neuromyelitis optica (NMO) and Devic’s disease.

Dr. Geoffrey Eubank, Medical Director of the Mid-Ohio MS Center at OhioHealth Neurological Physicians, stated, “We know how bad [neuromyelitis optica] can be. We know it can put people in wheelchairs, make them blind, really impact them…This is a disease that frightens us.”

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are an estimated 4,000 people living with NMOSD in the United States, and 250,000 living with the condition worldwide. Neuromyelitis optica is similar to multiple sclerosis (MS), since it’s also an autoimmune disease that impacts the central nervous system and disrupts the flow of information between the body an the brain, leading to permanent damage and deterioration of the nerves.

Eighty percent of those diagnosed with NMO are women. It occurs most commonly between the ages of 40 and 50, however, it’s been discovered in children as young as 3 and adults as old as 90. Research has found that demyelinating diseases are more common among certain populations, such as Africans, Asians and Native Americans.

As for Lawrence, her eyesight did slowly return after her stay in hospital, but she started suffering paralysis from the neck down months later. She then started physical and occupational therapy, which eventually allowed her to walk again. Despite this win, Lawrence’s NMO continued to relapse, and over a period of seven years, she made over 100 hospital visits.

“It was really bad,” she said, noting that the symptoms of her chronic illness were so debilitating, that they caused her to move in with her son Robert for help.

Five years ago, however, Lawrence found a ray of hope; she was enrolled in a clinical trial at OhioHealth for a new drug called Enspryng, a promising treatment for NMOSD, that’s been shown to reduce attacks of the disease. Since receiving the treatment, Lawrence says she hasn’t experienced a single NMO relapse.

“It’s a miracle,” she said of the drug Enspryng, which was officially approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in August 2020 for the treatment of NMOSD. This makes the drug the third approved treatment for the disorder, in addition to Soliris, which was approved in June 2019, and Uplizna, approved in June 2020.

“Thank God for the development of this medication because I truly believe it’s going to help a lot of people in my situation,” she said. “This is my second chance at life and [to live] more abundantly.”

Lawrence has since been able to move out of her son’s place and is now living independently.

“I was just existing before. I take care of me now,” she said proudly, noting that she is now enjoying her passion for cooking, playing with her grandchildren, and is even going back to school to pursue a degree in counseling.

“That’s a passion of mine because a lot of individuals, especially my age, that are suffering in silence,” she said. “I believe I could be a big influence and a big help to them.”

Lawrence credits her recovery to having a determined attitude and her faith in God.

“If I didn’t have God in my life, I truly feel that I wouldn’t be here right now,” she explained. “I had faith all along that even when I was paralyzed, lying in that hospital bed on my back, not being able to feed myself or do anything for myself…I maintained that I was not going to be flat on my back for the rest of my life.”

To learn more about Lawrence’s remarkable journey with NMO, read her full story in The Columbus Dispatch.

Toddler’s Strep Throat Triggers Neurological Autoimmune Disease

Nate Kenoe, pictured above, developed a frightening autoimmune disease after strep throat

Nate Kenoe was a vibrant, energetic 4-year-old boy. Unfortunately, he had had a string of illnesses, testing positive for strep throat five times over the course of eight months. Each time, it wasn’t immediately clear that Nate had strep throat- oftentimes, he didn’t even have a sore throat! Instead, he presented with less common symptoms, such as bad breath or a sore on his butt. When he would finally get diagnosed with strep throat, he had to take a less effective antibiotic treatment, due to his allergy to penicillin.

Eventually, Nate developed even more disturbing symptoms that weren’t in line with strep throat. He began to have sensory issues, feeling pains in his feet as if he were walking on rocks, experiencing coldness in his shoulders, and other tics. He also had dramatically changed behavior, including vomiting at the sight of food, urinating multiple times an hour and banging his head.

Thankfully, an attentive pediatrician recognized Nate’s symptoms as pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infection, known as PANDAS for short. PANDAS is a little-known autoimmune disease primarily occurring in children between the ages of 3 and 12. With this disease, strep throat opens the blood-brain barrier, allowing abnormal immune cells to enter the brain and cause neuro inflammation. It has been compared to autoimmune encephalitis (AE), another autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder.

The PANDAS network estimates that 1 in 200 children could have PANDAS; however, this autoimmune condition is often under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed due to its similarity with other conditions such as Tourette’s syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Nate’s own mother, a pediatric nurse, hadn’t even heard of the condition before.

Nate received antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications and had a surgery to remove his tonsils as a treatment for his PANDAS. As her son received treatment, his mother learned that PANDAS is in fact a controversial disease. Many physicians are skeptical that this autoimmune disease even exists, while others believe that there needs to be a standardized method for diagnosis and treatment.

One year later, Nate is faring much better than last year. However, if he gets sick, such as with a cold or virus, it will trigger another autoimmune ‘flare’ resulting in more sensory issues. Ultimately, Nate’s family hopes that by sharing his story, they can raise awareness about PANDAS, and in turn, help the disease get more research funding.

To learn more about PANDAS and Nate’s story, click here.

Evidence of Autoimmune Response in Patients with Autism; Family of Woman with Scleroderma Seeks Financial Support

Evidence of autoimmune response in patients with autism

Autism impacts 1 in 59 American children by age eight and can seriously impair social skills and communication, and lead to repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. For the first time, a team of Boston, Massachusetts-based physicians and scientists have published a report detailing evidence of an autoimmune response against brain cells in patients with autism.

Matthew Anderson, MD, PhD, was the lead researcher in the study. His team analyzed brain tissues donated through Autism BrainNet, a non-profit tissue bank, and noticed that over two-thirds of the brains examined contained three uncommon characteristics.

Firstly, they noted the accumulation of immune cells surrounding blood vessels in the brain (called perivascular lymphocyte cuffs). Secondly, they found that there were bubbles or blisters (that scientists call blebs) accumulating around these blood vessels. Finally, upon further examination, they found that these blebs contained debris called astrocytes.

These findings are evidence of an autoimmune response and chronic inflammation in the brains of patients with autism. The scientists also compared the autistic brains to those of non-autistic donated tissues, and the presence of these findings in the autistic patients ‘significantly surpassed’ that of the control cases.

Although this study does not definitively prove that autism is an autoimmune disease, it is a first step in finding evidence of an immune response for this neurological condition. Anderson compared his team’s findings to research that multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease caused by the immune system’s destruction of the nerves’ myelin sheath.

To read more about this astonishing study, click here.

Family of woman with scleroderma seeks financial support

Yesenia Garica, 25, of Newhall, Santa Clarita, California, first began experiencing debilitating symptoms five years ago. However, it took years for her to get a diagnosis of scleroderma – an autoimmune condition that primarily affects the skin.

Symptoms of scleroderma include hardened and thickened skin, ulcers and sores on the skin, joint pain, muscle weakness, intolerance to cold, high blood pressure, blood vessel damage, and scarring of the lungs.

Yesenia has been hospitalized six times and had surgery three times this year alone. As a result, she now weighs a mere 74 lbs. Unfortunately, her health insurance does not cover the medication that she is taking to treat her symptoms. As such, her family has set up a GoFundMe campaign so that Yesenia can continue to take the medication and to cover specialized treatment at UCLA. So far, the campaign has raised $4,700 out of the $10,000 goal.

To learn more about Yesenia’s condition and to contribute to her GoFundMe campaign, click here.