Greenville woman battles little-known illness with aid of faith, friends

Published 2:52 pm Friday, July 30, 2010

Debra Nichols is fighting a daily battle. It may not show on the outside, but it’s taking a toll on her. Faith, friendship and prayer are helping her making inroads against a disease that is unfamiliar to and misunderstood by many.

Nichols, who is a familiar face to Butler Countians as a former substitute teacher at Fort Dale Academy and CVS and Wal-Mart employee, has been diagnosed with Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, once known as “water on the brain.” She had been suffering from symptoms such as severe headaches, blurred vision in one eye, sluggishness, confusion, even personality changes, for months before the diagnosis in January 2010.

“I had never even heard of this before this happened. It usually happens at birth, but it can happen to adults like me, too,” Nichols explains.

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Hydrocephalus causes an excess of fluid to press on the brain, damaging and sometimes destroying brain tissue. There is no known cure. Shunt surgery can exacerbate the symptoms in some patients, but not all, and can cause temporary dementia.

“They are not recommending the shunt surgery for me except as a last resort. I did have the fluid drained off my brain and that helped a lot, but it will have to be done every six months,” Nichols said.

Nichols, who was already dealing with the often debilitating effects of fibromyalgia, didn’t initially reveal what was going on to friends and family. Her parents were both in poor health; her father has since passed away and her mother is battling Alzheimer’s. She is trying to spend time with her mother and keep up with the many medical visits her condition requires.

“I won’t lie; it’s been tough. I’ve made a lot of trips to the ER, a lot of doctor appointments and tests out of town. I can’t work; sometimes I can’t even drive,” Nichols said.

“ My daughter took some time off from college to drive me to appointments. I hit somebody while driving and managed to total two vehicles. ” Nichols said, shaking her head in wonderment. “It’s by the grace of God that we all walked away.”

Since her initial diagnosis, Nichols has also developed something called trigeminal neuralgia which affects the right side of her face, causing numbness, intense pain and blurring of vision.

“I have a tumor there, which, thank God, is not cancerous. But it does have to be removed or things are only going to get worse,” Nichols said. “I’m already having to take too much pain medicine.”

She is now a candidate for a special type of robotic surgery which could provide much-needed relief for her condition.

“I feel that if I am accepted, that’s God telling me I was meant to have the surgery. If it isn’t, then I believe another door will open,” Nichols said.

While the family has insurance through her husband’s job, costs have mounted due to deductibles, co-pays, gas, food and other expenses involved in getting treatment.

Friends have set up a fund for Nichols at Woodforest Bank inside the Greenville Wal-Mart to help in defraying some of these costs.

But even more than financial assistance, Nichols, a woman of strong faith, says she wants this: a better understanding by the community of this little-known illness.

“And I ask for people’s prayers. I do believe God will see me and my family through this,” Nichols said.