Regaining a Life
Migraine Sufferer Finds Relief at Jefferson Headache Center
First came the head injury from a fall down a flight of stone steps in 2005. Soon after came the light and sound sensitivity, the dizziness that made the room spin like a carnival ride, the nausea and vomiting, the never-ending days of excruciating pain. For Cathie Wright, migraine headaches put an end to life as she knew it.
Wright, 27, of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., had never suffered such debilitating headaches before and didn’t understand what she was experiencing. For the next two years, she would see eight neurologists, undergo a battery of tests, including MRIs and CAT scans, and have diagnoses of possible transient ischemic attack and stroke. But no one could make a final determination of what was wrong with her. No one could stop the pain. No one could put an end to her torture.
By 2007, she was getting 15 to 20 incapacitating headaches a month; her world crumbled around her. “It wasn’t safe to drive because I never knew when a headache would hit. There was no way I could work—no one will hire you if you call out fifteen days of the month. I was homebound, I was miserable, I was depressed.”
At the urging of a healthcare case manager, Wright sought answers at Jefferson’s Headache Center. Stephen Silberstein MD, director of the center, determined the fall had triggered migraines, including the hemiplegic type.
Hemiplegic migraine symptoms mimic those common to stroke. They can cause extreme muscle weakness similar to temporary paralysis; vision disturbances, including flashes of light or double vision (known as an “aura”); trouble speaking or slurred speech; and loss of coordination. The symptoms can last from a few hours to a few days.
“They are absolutely terrifying,” Wright says. “You’re dizzy. You have nausea. You’re vomiting. Every light hurts. Every sound hurts.”
The doctor also determined she suffered from cluster headaches—“one of the most severe types of pain that a human can experience,” according to the American Migraine Foundation, which describes them as “suicide headaches.”
“There were times that I would think about dying rather than going through another one,” Wright says.
Silberstein admitted her to the Headache Center at Jefferson Methodist Hospital, where she was given IV medication to ease the pain. “And finally, thank God, it broke,” Wright remembers. While her pain wasn’t completely gone, after suffering years of agony, the moderate lingering ache was one she could handle.
Ongoing treatment at the Headache Center gave Wright more control over her condition. Psychiatrists, doctors, and staff members have helped her determine how to best handle the headaches through lifestyle changes, medication, and exercise, and aided in identifying her triggers. There is no red wine, aged cheese, or artificial sweetener in her life. “But there is chocolate! Thankfully, chocolate is not a trigger,” she says, smiling.
Unfortunately, there are triggers that are out of her control, such as weather and stress, but the right medication at the right time makes all the difference in the world. She is now down to less than ten headache days per month—and most of them are not migraines. When she does get a migraine it lasts only two days, rather than the eight to 10 days of the past.
Wright says she will probably never be completely free of the migraines, but knowing that the Headache Center is a phone call away gives her comfort.
“If it’s gone on for more than 48 hours, I call down to the Headache Center, and they tell me what the next step is,” she says. “The Headache Center is comprised of many doctors who have a passion for resolving this problem. They’re very supportive, very understanding.”
And understanding is the key, she says. “Migraine sufferers are a special population,” Wright says “You really either need to suffer from migraines or have a family member who does to understand their impact on everyday life.” Wright credits the Headache Center with minimizing that impact.
“Today, I work, I go to school, I volunteer with the American Red Cross, I travel with my family. I live my life. I’m happy,” she says. “My life is back to being my life, and what I choose to do with it.”