When fluctuating hearing loss, with frequent bouts of nausea and vertigo caused New York flight attendant Patricia Gilbert to miss several work shifts, she sought answers from the medical community. After seeing several doctors, she was no closer to a solution and their remedies did little to alleviate her symptoms. Finally an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor ran some tests, weighed her symptoms and gave her the diagnoses of Ménière's disease, a balance disorder of the inner ear.
The four main symptoms of Ménière's disease are fluctuating sensorineural hearing loss, tinnitus or ringing in the ears, a sensation of fullness in the ear and multiple severe episodes of vertigo. Although Ménière's is not a life-threatening disease, the symptoms can be debilitating and the treatment frustrating because the disease can prove to be highly variable between individuals.
She had missed a lot of work already, and once she was diagnosed with Ménière's and began medical treatment, she was permanently grounded. She couldn't take the risk that pressure changes during a flight might trigger an attack of acute, debilitating symptoms. "I'm passionate about world travel and I loved my work," says Patricia. "I always enjoyed being productive and I was good at my job. When I couldn't continue working in aviation, my sense of accomplishment was gone and I was devastated."
When medications failed to help, Patricia's doctor suggested she consult with Dr. Antonio De la Cruz and his colleagues at the House Clinic in Los Angeles to explore other options. Since her career was on hold, Patricia decided to relocate from New York to California to be closer to her family, who happened to live in Los Angeles. Since she understood that there was no cure for Ménière's, she was hesitant to visit another doctor. Serendipity stepped in. She met Dr. De la Cruz at a social gathering, and after learning from him that astronaut Alan Shepard had been surgically treated for Ménière's and then gone back into space, she agreed to visit the House Clinic.
Patricia decided to undergo an endolymphatic sac shunt surgery, the same treatment that Alan Shepard received. "I was so excited about this surgical treatment that I wanted to go straight from the operating room to the exercise room," says Patricia, "but I needed to wait until my system had time to adjust." Her surgery has led to improved hearing and reduction of her symptoms, a definite improvement in her quality of life.