In the spring of 2018, Anthony Oliveti ‘20AUD
, was working at his clinical rotation for Thomas Goyne, AuD
, adjunct professor in the University’s Osborne College of Audiology (OCA). The area had been hit with a big snowstorm and there were some power outages, including at Dr. Goyne’s office in Wayne, Pa.
When Oliveti got to the office that day, he noticed his feet were cold and tingly, but he didn’t think anything of it given the lack of heat in building. That tingling in his feet lasted for two or three days.
Leading up to the weekend, Oliveti had plans to attend the Philadelphia Flower Show with a friend, but noticed the weird sensation he had felt in his feet had moved upward to just above his knees.
“To this day, I don’t know how to describe it. It wasn’t exactly tingly, but just off, and a little numb,” said Oliveti.
The next day, things got even worse. When Oliveti woke up, he had no feeling from his hips down on both legs. He had full motor functions and could walk, but when he did it felt like his legs were asleep.
Something was definitely wrong. Oliveti asked his friend to take him to the emergency room, where he walked in under his own power.
“They were very baffled by the whole situation,” said Oliveti. “It’s not a common thing for people who can’t feel their legs to still be able to walk and otherwise look normal.”
He was admitted into the hospital and a series of tests were done. Initially, the medical staff couldn’t find anything and were still baffled. That only increased the anxiety level for Oliveti.
“This was happening over a weekend, so I was thinking I had clinic to worry about and classes to worry about,” he said. “So it was only adding to the stress of not being able to feel my body.”
After doing MRIs on Oliveti from his head to his hips, an answer finally emerged: the myelin around his spinal cord at C3 was severely missing. And, the diagnosis was transverse myelitis, an inflammation of both sides of one section of the spinal cord. The neurological disorder often damages the insulating material covering nerve cell fibers and interrupts the messages that the spinal cord nerves send throughout the body.
The doctors told Oliveti the situation had to run its course and it was going to get worse before it got better. And, it did.
Over the the next couple of days, while still hospitalized, the pins and needles sensation he was feeling crept up his body, from his hips to his armpits, then crawled down both arms. At its worst point, Oliveti said, he could feel only his index finger and his thumb on both hands.
Doctors were concerned that his organs were going to start being affected, so he was under constant observation. Because he suffered from asthma, his breathing was constantly monitored.
The treatment was a five-day course of very strong steroids, after which they sent him home, still with no feeling in his body. And, then Oliveti had to wait.
Slowly, over the course of three weeks from the time he got home, the feeling in his body gradually came back. “I started to feel my fingers a little bit by the end of the first week, but it took the other two weeks to get the whole arms and legs back,” he said. “It was a gradual process and it was upsetting because I wasn’t noticing any large changes.”
In addition to the health issues he was experiencing, Oliveti also was worried about his educational path being disrupted and delayed while he battled the inflammation.
Officially, he missed only one week of clinic. But he chose to go back to his clinical work, even though he hadn’t regained all the feeling in his body.
“It was during clinical rotations, and it gets really messy because we have to have a certain amount of hours,” said Oliveti. “Changing the domes or the wax guards in hearing aids, I had to do that with no feeling in my fingers. I was always dropping the hearing aids. But if I took an extra week off I wouldn’t have been able to finish my rotation. So I had to force myself to go back. It was a little scary, but I managed it.”
Fortunately, Oliveti’s case of transverse myelitis was considered mild and was caught early. He doesn’t have any lingering effects, and although doctors didn’t find a cause for why it happened, they have cautioned Oliveti that he could have another episode. One third of those who get transverse myelitis recover without lingering effects.
“Something that I do notice, that doctors said would be normal, is that my foot falls asleep quicker than it would in a normal person,” said Oliveti. “It could have been a lot worse. I just got very lucky and I was prompt on getting myself to the hospital.”
The incident occurred midway through his training to become an audiologist, but Oliveti was able to recover and graduate on time with the rest of his classmates. He plans to view the virtual commencement ceremony May 22 after which he will start work at the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
If there was a silver lining to the frightening experience, it’s that Oliveti said it has affected the way he practices audiology and has helped mold him into the clinician he is today.
“I now can better relate to my patients. My illness left me with a temporary sensory impairment, which is exactly what my patients are experiencing,” he said. “I can empathize with how having a missing/diminished sense can affect all aspects of your life. It truly put into perspective how meaningful what I do is: I am reconnecting individuals and ultimately trying to improve the quality of life.”
In addition, he said his experience has shown him the importance of interprofessional and collaborative care.
“During my hospital stay I was seen by several specialties. My ‘mystery illness’ had everyone baffled and it took a team of medical and allied health professionals to get me to where I am today,” said Oliveti.
He cited Lindsay Bondurant, PhD, CCC-A
, assistant professor at OCA and director of the Pennsylvania Ear Institute; Radhika Aravamudhan, PhD
, dean of OCA and professor of audiology in the residential program; and Dr. Goyne as instrumental in his recovery.
“Knowing that they had my back and were there for me when it came to classes, clinic, and moral support is something that I’m incredibly thankful for,” he said. “Plagued by a rare disease in the middle of my doctorate program was terrifying, but I’m happy that OCA was understanding and supportive during my recovery process.”