After a bike accident caused a serious brain injury, Mark Harrington and his wife, Jane, were inspired to give back to the doctor who restored Mark to health by funding research that could change the way dementia is diagnosed and treated.
Neurosurgeon Greg Zipfel, MD, offers Mark and Jane Harrington a glimpse into his brain research.
In the summer of 2012, Mark experienced a head injury in a bike accident. However, it didn’t appear that he would suffer any lasting effects. After an overnight stay in a local hospital, he was released, returned home and was biking again within a couple of weeks.
But as time passed it became clear that something was wrong. Mark began to feel unsteady and was losing his balance—very unusual for the avid cyclist.
After appointments with both his internist and neurosurgeon, a CT scan detected a subdural hematoma, a blood clot between the skull and the brain. Although potentially serious, hematomas often dissolve on their own without surgical intervention. Mark’s physician recommended watchful waiting.
Two days later Mark found himself in the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital after Jane intercepted a confused phone call he was having with a family friend. Jane took the phone from Mark and the friend said, “Jane, call 911; Mark is not processing at all!”
The Journey to Healing
At Barnes-Jewish, another CT scan showed that the blood clot on Mark’s brain had expanded, causing more pressure on the brain. Gregory Zipfel, MD, a Washington University neurosurgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, recommended surgery; he would drill two dime-sized openings in Mark’s skull to drain the fluid and relieve the pressure.
After weighing the risks, Mark decided to proceed with the surgery even as Jane prepared herself for a difficult recovery. Remarkably, Mark showed improvement almost immediately.
“When I saw him after surgery, he was smiling and talking,” Jane says. “I was so surprised to see how well he was doing.”
“Relieving the pressure was like a miracle,” Mark says.
Today, Mark is grateful for the procedure and the excellent care he received at Barnes-Jewish. “If I hadn’t had the surgery, I have no idea how I would have ended up,” he says. “Surgery turned things around dramatically and really lifted my spirits when I realized my sense of balance had been restored. I started feeling optimistic again.”
Just one month after surgery, Mark was on the way toward a full recovery and was cleared to resume normal activities.
Helping Generations to Come
The experience the Harringtons had at Barnes-Jewish opened their eyes to the advances in medical research occurring in St. Louis. After learning about Dr. Zipfel’s research for a condition called cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA), which causes dementia on its own and worsens the dementia of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, the Harringtons saw an opportunity to make a difference that could have a lasting impact.
“This awareness of Dr. Zipfel’s research rang a bell for both me and Jane,” Mark says. “Both of our fathers suffered during the last years of their lives from dementia that was suspected to be Alzheimer’s.”
Through The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, the Harringtons support Dr. Zipfel’s research that could be an important stepping stone in diagnosing and treating patient suffering from dementia due to CAA.
“Everyone’s brain produces something called an amyloid protein, which is usually cleared away through natural processes.” Dr. Zipfel explains. “But in patients with CAA, the amyloid protein instead deposits in the blood vessels of the brain and impairs blood flow, causes brain bleeds (mini-strokes) and can lead to dementia. It’s a bigger problem than people realize, and it’s been understudied for years.”
Currently, CAA is diagnosed only at the late stages of illness when it’s already causing the brain bleeds and it must be diagnosed with a brain biopsy. But Dr. Zipfel’s research aims to develop an imaging test to detect CAA earlier without a biopsy and to develop therapeutic approaches to the disease.
“Mark saw an avenue to give back and hopefully help a lot of people through our research,” Dr. Zipfel says. “Mark and Jane are the kind of people who have worked hard in life and who look to give back to the St. Louis community. This is one way they are doing that—moving research forward at a nationally acclaimed institution.”
Mark and Jane are excited to support research. “Through the knowledge that is developed via the research, you are making a lasting contribution that is going to have an impact for generations,” Mark says.
“To be able to do something that gives back…that makes life beautiful,” Jane adds.
For the Harringtons, the future looks bright. Mark is back on his bike and both of them are able to travel again.
“In the spring when you get back on the bike and the sun is shining on your back, life is good,” Mark says. “It is exhilarating.”
To support advances in dementia treatment, please make a gift to the Harrington/Zhu Alzheimer’s Research Fund at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Make a gift online or call 314-286-0600.
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