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Her Vision is 20/20, but She Can't Make Sense of What She Sees

Loyola Article Describes Balint's Syndrome, a Rare and Baffling Neurological Disorder

MAYWOOD, Ill. - It was a quiet Thursday afternoon when A.S., a 68-year-old woman from a Chicago suburb, woke up from a nap and realized something was terribly wrong.

Thus begins a Loyola University Medical Center paper on a rare and baffling neurological disorder called Balint's Syndrome, which badly impairs patients' ability to make sense of what they see.

The article describes in novelistic detail the difficult adjustments two patients have had to make in their lives. The article is published in the Sept. 11 issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The paper was written by José Biller, MD; Murray Flaster, MD; and first author Jason Cuomo. Biller and Flaster are neurologists and Cuomo is a fourth-year medical student at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

The authors note that amid the rigors of clinical practice, physicians can understand the disease without truly understanding the patient's experience. Their article "is an attempt to inform both our clinical and subjective understandings of Balint's Syndrome through narratives of two patients suffering from this rare and unique neurological disorder."

Balint's Syndrome is named after Austro-Hungarian neurologist Rezsõ Bálint, who first described it. The condition is caused by one or more strokes in certain regions of the brain. It causes three deficits: Difficulty initiating voluntary eye movements (such as following a physician's finger); inaccurate arm pointing (a patient can see an object, but is unable to pick it up); and constriction of the visual field (ask a patient to look at a parking lot, and all she sees is a lamppost or a car.)

When A.S. woke from her nap, she couldn't find where doors or cabinets were. She couldn't name or distinguish familiar household objects. She couldn't read a book or the numbers on her telephone. She couldn't see where the bedroom wall ended and the door began.

Yet when she saw an ophthalmologist, her vision with glasses was 20/20. She and her husband left the ophthalmologist's office with a referral to see a neurologist, and "wondering what sort of ailment could rob her of her ability to see the bathroom sink, while leaving her with what we typically think of as perfect vision."

The second patient, J.D., was a robust, hard-working owner of a trucking business. While driving to his son's house for Thanksgiving, he began to swerve. And at Thanksgiving dinner, he held the spoon upside down. He then experienced left-sided weakness and facial drooping, before losing consciousness. Doctors believe he had suffered a massive stroke, followed by a series of mini strokes.

A.S. has made many adjustments. For example, while getting ready in the morning, she must touch the sink at all times to remain oriented. While showering, she has to keep her hand on the shower bar. Before brushing her teeth, she puts the toothpaste directly in her mouth, then moves the toothbrush by trial and error to meet it. She has stopped driving. And because she can no longer read, she listens to audio books.

J.D. has suffered depression, a first for him. "He never once cried before," his wife said, "but now he cries often."

A.S. said she would not wish Balint's Syndrome on anyone, "because not only is this a life change, it's a mind change."

A.S. hopes her story will motivate physicians to seek better treatments and therapies.

Loyola University Health System (LUHS) is a member of Trinity Health. Based in the western suburbs of Chicago, LUHS is a quaternary care system with a 61-acre main medical center campus, the 36-acre Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus and more than 30 primary and specialty care facilities in Cook, Will and DuPage counties. The medical center campus is conveniently located in Maywood, 13 miles west of the Chicago Loop and 8 miles east of Oak Brook, Ill. The heart of the medical center campus is a 559-licensed-bed hospital that houses a Level 1 Trauma Center, a Burn Center and the Ronald McDonald® Children's Hospital of Loyola University Medical Center. Also on campus are the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola Outpatient Center, Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine and Loyola Oral Health Center as well as the LUC Stritch School of Medicine, the LUC Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the Loyola Center for Fitness. Loyola's Gottlieb campus in Melrose Park includes the 255-licensed-bed community hospital, the Professional Office Building housing 150 private practice clinics, the Adult Day Care, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness, Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care and the Loyola Cancer Care & Research at the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Center at Melrose Park.

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