In May 2017, Lynn Swanson woke up expecting to see a beautiful spring day. Instead, the healthy and active 79-year-old was having trouble seeing out of one eye.
When an exam by a local ophthalmologist raised questions, Lynn went immediately to Fairview Ridges Hospital in Burnsville for testing. Time was of the essence.
The diagnosis: giant cell arteritis.
“I thought I must’ve slept on my eye wrong,” Lynn says. “All of a sudden, I had a terrible disease that I’d never heard of.”
A follow-up visit with her primary care physician, Bhavjot Kaur, MD, brought her to a Fairview specialist very familiar with this disease.
“She said, ‘I know this young doctor who graduated not long ago. He’s studied this particular problem and I’d like for you to see him,’” Lynn recalls. “I said, ‘Sure, I want somebody that knows what they’re doing!’”
Giant cell arteritis is a type of inflammation in the blood vessels. The inflammation restricts blood flow, leading to headaches, jaw pain, tenderness in the scalp, and, if left untreated, can lead to irreparable harm to your vision.
“A significant number of patients get permanent vision loss from this disease,” says Prabhu Deepak Udayakumar, MD, the rheumatologist who treated Lynn. “This is a disease which can be easily missed, and this can be very dangerous for the patient.”
Giant cell arteritis is most common in older people; the average age of diagnosis is about 72 years old. The symptoms, however, are common in older adults and can be overlooked.
“I didn’t experience many symptoms, except for the soreness at the back of my head and around my ears. I didn’t recognize it as pain, and I never assumed it was a symptom of anything else,” Lynn says. “It really surprised me to be dealing with something nefarious.”Dr. Udayakumar says patients who notice the following symptoms should be assessed for this condition as soon as possible, particularly if they are women over 70 years of age from Scandinavian descent:
A timely diagnosis can be the difference between temporary and permanent vision loss with this condition. In Lynn’s case, quick action by her family and doctors saved her vision.
Her treatment began before she even left Fairview Ridges, and continued with Dr. Udayakumar and nurse Brenda Kuhnau. Dr. Udayakumar’s research indicates patients on average need to be treated for about two and a half years. The medication used to reduce the inflammation needs to be tapered off slowly to prevent a relapse.
But Lynn’s diligence in following her treatment plan helped her finish nearly a year sooner than expected.
“Lynn recovered remarkably well from this disease,” Dr. Udayakumar says. “She followed instructions diligently. She never missed any appointments. Her family was very supportive, and their contribution for her recovery is very crucial too.”
Today, Lynn no longer needs medication for the condition and will see Dr. Udayakumar only periodically to monitor for any relapse. In the meantime, she is returning to her normal, active life: visiting neighbors, leading Bible studies, reading, quilting — and one unforgettable bike ride.
This past summer, one of Lynn’s sons and his friends got together and planned an all-day motorcycle ride for their mothers. Given Lynn’s lifelong love for motorcycles and all she had just been through, she cherished the day even more.
“I’ve had such a different attitude since that ride, because it was so precious to me,” Lynn says. “It made me realize these kids of mine, they’re my biggest blessing by far.”
Lynn knows it wouldn’t have been possible without the care she received at Fairview.
“Dr. Udayakumar and Brenda are just the most gracious, encouraging people, and I’ve loved them,” Lynn says. “I felt very blessed and very fortunate that they caught it, and I was dealing with doctors who knew what they were doing.”
To make an appointment with rheumatology or any of our other specialists, call 855-FAIRVIEW.