Medical Marvels

5 Amazing Stories That Show How Coastal Virginia’s Doctors Are Making Breakthroughs And Garnering National Attention

Medical Breakthroughs In Coastal Virginia

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A few decades ago, not many people would have thought of Coastal Virginia as a leader in medical research and advancements. But now, thanks to the hard work of local physicians and other experts, our community not only provides state-of-the-art care for southeast Virginians, it draws people from across the country who are seeking the newest testing, procedures and treatments. Here are just a few of the reasons why we’re earning accolades:

Standing Up Once Again
Virginia Beach resident Linda Lilley will celebrate her 61st birthday in November. And if all goes well, she’ll also celebrate 12 months without fainting.

Up until last November, Linda fainted often—for 26 years. She even went through phases when she’d faint up to six times a day. Plus, she suffered fatigue, diarrhea, heat intolerance, migraines, nausea and heart problems.

“Doctors told me I was doing too much,” says Linda, who was teaching nursing at Old Dominion University in Norfolk and working on her doctorate’s degree when her symptoms started. “At other times they’d only say ‘something is going on; it’s rare and chronic.’ When things got really bad, they said to quit work and get my affairs in order.”

Not one to give up, Linda sought help from the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency she knew was tied to research studies throughout the country. She followed up on their leads and other promising-sounding treatments at well-known programs at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Vanderbilt University.

“I found some help, but never enough,” Linda says. “At one point I was told to take eight to 12 Sudafeds a day to keep my blood pressure up so that I wouldn’t faint. Another doctor said to stop doing that because it would make problems with my heart and nervous system worse.”

She was also given a diagnosis of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), where the nervous system doesn’t respond appropriately. For a while she found some relief from treatment, but not for long.

In 2010, Linda had no choice but to retire.

“I was couch-bound four out of seven days every week,” she says.

Hope for relief from her migraines and more came when she met Dr. Amelito Malapira from Virginia Beach in 2012. He mentioned Dr. Kamal Chemali, a physician who was soon to arrive in Norfolk and formalize the Sentara Neuromuscular and Autonomic Center, a fully equipped lab that is one of seven in the country. It is the only one in the mid-Atlantic region.

Center Coordinator Kevin McNeeley led Linda through a battery of tests about a year ago.

“I try to get people to laugh,” says Kevin. “It can be over two hours of tests. I like to say ‘my jokes are the most painful part.’ I also emphasis, ‘when we’re done we will find out all of this is in your head, but not your imagination.’”

Linda understood what Kevin meant: A few doctors had dismissed her and her symptoms. Kevin and Dr. Chemali, however, listened to her and presented her with a plan—infusions of immunoglobins, a protein found in blood.   

“It’s not a cure,” says Linda, “but I have more energy than I’ve had in years.”

This summer, the Center is introducing another rarely available diagnostic tool called Thermoregulatory Sweat Testing. Patients wear a bathing suit and are covered with a paprika-colored powder. After entering a sauna-like chamber, they see the powder turn purple everywhere that their sweat glands are functioning properly. Those areas that remain paprika-colored signify a concern.

Earlier in his career, Kevin used the test to help a 15-year-old wrestler discover he was diabetic.

With 23 years experience in the field, he knows how much the battery of tests is needed.

“We’ve had patients come from all over the country, California, Florida,” he says, “even Canada.”

The Nerve Of Him
dr aaron vinikThe joy in Dr. Aaron Vinik’s voice is unmistakable as he says six deceptively simple words:

“The dogma goes by the wayside.”

As director of research at Norfolk’s Eastern Virginia Medical School’s (EVMS), Strelitz Diabetes Research Center, Dr. Vinik could be talking about any of the studies he’s conducted during his long career.

In this case, he’s referring to his ongoing research of neuropathy.

Many diabetics suffer from the damaged-nerves condition, and most of them have been led to believe that the damage started in their hands and feet.

“They’d call it a ‘glove and stocking abnormality,’” says Dr. Vinik. “We’ve learned that’s not the case; we find it originating in the lower back or forearm.”

Dr. Vinik’s research starts with a funky-looking cap that has sensors linked to a Contact Heat Evoked Potential Stimulation (CHEPS) computer. Patients don the cap, and researchers activate the patients’ nerves with mild heat. They track which part of the patients’ brain reacts and processes the pain.

Thanks to Dr. Vinik’s findings, patients might avoid a skin biopsy previously used to identify nerve damage, and damage could be found earlier.

Someday, maybe, further research could lead to diabetics completely avoiding painful nerve damage—and the amputations that sometimes follow.   

Those without diabetes could benefit, too.

“We’re looking at what happens to the brain with processing pain,” Dr. Vinik explains. “We’re not good at managing pain, and this gives us insight that could help. We may have our finger on the pulse of a discovery.”

He reports differences in how races and sexes process, conduct and perceive pain.

He sees females in general having a higher tolerance for pain. African-Americans he’s studied have milder nerve damage, but the effect of the damage leads to a greater number of amputations.

“We ask ‘are the rates of conduction different?,’ and yes, they are,” he notes.

In their fourth year of research, Dr. Vinik’s team is taking a new step and applying agents topically to skin to see how each blocks pain’s pathways.

“We’re thinking about applications,” he says. “The first year or two of research we were finding our way. Now we’re finding what we can do with the information. We haven’t finished our research with CHEPS and are excited to continue.”

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