A New Look at Life

After a decades-old procedure malfunctioned, surgery partially restores patient’s lost sight

Published in Summer 2018

Packing for her anniversary trip to Playa del Carmen gave Mary Catherine Derin a migraine, or so she thought. It wasn’t until she passed out on the floor of the plane en route to Mexico that she realized there might be more behind this particular headache.

As her summer 2017 trip progressed, Derin grew dizzy and ultimately lost mobility, landing her in an emergency department 3,200 miles away from home.

Derin, a lifelong fitness enthusiast, yoga instructor and wellness coach, returned to Maryland and was admitted to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. She found herself fi rst weak and tingly, then later paralyzed, puzzling her doctors with a sudden onset of intermittent blindness. 

A Rare Complication

After several weeks of inpatient care with no improvement, Derin’s husband Tony requested a transfer to Johns Hopkins. Doctors at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center quickly realized that an all-but-forgotten shunt in her brain, which had been placed to alleviate excess fluid when Derin was five days old, had malfunctioned. Although Derin displayed common symptoms of shunt malfunction for several years—headaches, blurred vision, neck and back pain—she had attributed them to the aches and pains of aging, not to her shunt. Completely unrelated to her GBS, the malfunctioning shunt was causing pressure on her brain and ultimately impacting Derin’s optic nerves, leaving her completely blind at the time of her surgery.

“Whenever we see a patient who presents with headaches or vision changes, we consider
the possibility of a change in pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid,” says neurologist Aruna Rao, M.D. “This would indicate to us that the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord is altered or restricted, putting the patient at risk for severe harm. We never stop until we find an answer, and we were very satisfied to be able to restore Mary Catherine to good health.”

After surgery, Derin slowly regained partial vision and began rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins Bayview to regain some strength and improve her mobility, ultimately heading home after a five-week stay. She continued briefly with therapy at home, and is now relishing her improving skills in everyday tasks that were once so routine for her: doing laundry, getting the mail, dialing the phone and walking her dogs. Her recovery from GBS is impeded by her limited vision; Derin has no depth perception or peripheral vision, and sees only in low light, as if the world were “candlelit.” Relearning to take steps safely outside or walking down a flight of stairs at home can be difficult, but Derin is tackling her new life with a joyful spirit and an open mind. 

The “New Normal”

Now dedicating herself to a new role as a blogger, social networker and small business advocate, Derin is grateful for her new life and the perspective it has brought to her and her family. She uses her trademark sense of humor to get through any stumbles in her “new normal” life, and focuses on “turning any obstacles into detours instead.” She credits her care team at Johns Hopkins Bayview with recognizing her rare complication and restoring much of her vision.