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Active Life Reclaimed

NorthShore Surgeon Treats Debilitating Neurological Condition

For most of his 74 years, El Giannisis has been a picture of vitality until an elusive neurological condition robbed him of his memory and the ability to walk. Now, he’s back on his feet, working out, sailing and vacationing with his grandchildren thanks to NorthShore Neurological Institute (NNI) neurosurgeon Gail Rosseau, MD, who accurately diagnosed and treated him for normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH).

NPH occurs when the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid is blocked. It causes an abnormal increase of fluid in the brain’s ventricles, which puts pressure on the brain. NPH is characterized by cognitive decline, walking and balance problems, and incontinence— symptoms that also are associated with dementia as well as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

“I love the sea,” Giannisis said, recalling his career as an electrician on international cargo ships. He also had lived on a boat off the Florida coast. In 2006, his boat was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and he moved to Wilmette to live with his daughter, Demetria. Shortly afterwards, he suffered a stroke and underwent heart surgery.

Giannisis recovered from his stroke but developed vascular dementia, a condition that causes cognitive problems from impaired blood flow to the brain. However, his daughter suspected another cause for other symptoms he began to develop, including difficulty walking, increased confusion, memory problems and incontinence.

“Because his symptoms could be attributed to other conditions, it was hard to find out what was really causing the problem,” said Demetria Giannisis, who is her father’s primary caregiver. After visiting several doctors, it was Dr. Rosseau who definitively diagnosed his condition.

“Symptoms of NPH are subtle, and it can be hard to make the diagnosis,” said Dr. Rosseau. “Diagnosis and treatment require the coordination of a team like the one we have at NorthShore.” She praised Demetria for her observant, steadfast care of her father, which played a role in his eventual diagnosis.

Once NPH is suspected, doctors insert a lumbar drain to remove spinal fluid and monitor patients for improved symptoms. This requires the resources of a neurologist; neurosurgeon; highly skilled nurses; and physical, occupational and speech therapists. In El Giannisis’ case, Dr. Rosseau drained a small amount of fluid through a lumbar puncture. He showed almost immediate improvement.

Treating NPH involves implanting a shunt—or thin, hollow tube—under the scalp to drain excess fluid from the brain to the abdomen, where it is absorbed safely back into the bloodstream. New technology allows physicians to painlessly adjust the shunt’s settings, if needed, in a doctor’s office.

“NPH is a treatable condition because we can relieve or reverse symptoms if caught early enough,” said Dr. Rosseau. She calls the results she sees in her patients “some of my most satisfying cases.”

“Having this condition was like having a nightmare and then waking up,” Giannisis said. “I am so thankful for my daughter and the doctors for giving me my life back.”

For more information about NNI’s advanced diagnostics and treatments, please call 847.492.5700 (Ext. 1207), or visit NorthShore Neurological Institute.