Independence day arrived for Ramona Luckman-Cohen on June 12, 2009.
After more than 10 years of pain, suffering and misdiagnoses, the Sun City West woman left St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix with a renewed sense of freedom.
“I couldn’t believe it because I could feel a difference immediately,” said Luckman-Cohen, a retired interior designer from Chicago. “My independence had been taken away from me, and I got it back that day.”
Luckman-Cohen had surgery that day for a condition known as normal pressure hydrocephalus.
Also known as “water on the brain,” hydrocephalus is a medical condition in which there is an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the ventricles, or cavities, of the brain.
Normally associated with children, the 69-year-old Luckman-Cohen had never exhibited any symptoms until 1998, when she began to have occasional bouts of incontinence.
She shrugged it off as a byproduct of getting older and moved on with her life.
By 2000, more problems developed as she occasionally struggled to walk up and down stairs.
“I would often carry big samples in a panel van for my job,” Luckman-Cohen said. “It was hard to get the samples out of the van, but I thought I was just out of shape.
“I didn’t pay any attention.”
Two years later, she began to pay attention when she felt a “zing” in her head as she was taking a walk while living in Las Vegas.
“I suddenly couldn’t walk and I had to sit on the sidewalk and wait until I could move again,” she said. “I thought I had a stroke.”
Thus began the next chapter in Luckman-Cohen’s medical journey.
Doctors in Las Vegas performed a myriad of medical tests and determined Luckman-Cohen had hydrocephalus.
“I went to the doctor because I thought I had a stroke and they told me I needed brain surgery,” she said. “I definitely wanted a second opinion.”
In Los Angeles, neurology experts at UCLA disputed the other diagnosis and told her surgery wasn’t necessary.
Given the two options, Luckman-Cohen went with the latter.
By 2006, she had moved to Sun City West and her condition had worsened considerably.
“I had difficulty walking and even thinking,” she said. “I couldn’t remember.”
Even the most mundane activities proved to be difficult.
She struggled to go to the grocery store, leaning on the cart as she tried to maneuver through the aisles. A woman who enjoyed going to the gym and working out was suddenly becoming a prisoner in her own home.
Armed with the results from her previous neurological exams, she went back to the doctors.
This time, she was told she had Parkinson’s disease.
“My husband and I went back to our car and just cried,” Luckman-Cohen said in describing her reaction to the latest diagnosis. “I knew there wasn’t a cure, and I figured this is what had become of my life.”
A woman named Luckman certainly needed a change in fortune.
That occurred when Luckman-Cohen’s mom spotted a news item for a Parkinson’s disease support group in the Daily News-Sun.
Luckman-Cohen began to attend the weekly meetings and became more sure she didn’t have Parkinson’s disease.
“Finally, I approached the support group coordinator, who worked for St. Joseph’s,” Luckman-Cohen recalled. “I explained my situation and she arranged for me to meet with a doctor at St. Joseph’s.”
After a series of appointments, the doctor concurred with Luckman-Cohen and referred her to a pediatric neurosurgeon.
“Five minutes into our first meeting, the surgeon told me he could help me,” Luckman-Cohen said. “I figured if he could operate on babies, he could operate on me.”
The original diagnosis back in 1998 had been correct.
Luckman-Cohen had hydrocephalus.
Fortunately for her, medical advances in the treatment of the condition had improved in the last 10 years.
Surgeons implanted a shunt in her brain, with a collection catheter extending from her neck to a drainage area in her abdomen.
Nothing is visible to the naked eye and the shunt can be adjusted magnetically, without any other invasive procedures. After a few rehabilitation sessions, she returned to a normal routine more than 10 years after first exhibiting symptoms of hydrocephalus.
“I’m still glad I didn’t have surgery the first time because it would have been a more difficult procedure,” said Luckman-Cohen, who said the 10-year medical odyssey filled her with a mix of anger, depression and frustration.
Luckman-Cohen’s surgery is similar to that performed last month on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Tucson congresswoman injured in an assassination attempt in January.
The Sun City West woman said she hopes Giffords’ successful surgery will lend positive publicity to the procedure and help others who may be unaware of the condition. Symptoms can often be misdiagnosed since they mirror other conditions.
Luckman-Cohen hasn’t celebrated her surgical success with a bucket list of activities.
For her, the simple pleasures of life are satisfying enough.
She enjoys making meals at home, going to the gym for workouts and doting on her three grandchildren.
Even a trip to the grocery store can be a good time.
Rich Bolas is the managing editor of the Daily News-Sun. He may be reached at 623-876-2523 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.