NEW ORLEANS -- Last year, I got a phone call that entertainer Charmaine Neville was having serious health problems and was mentally declining fast.
So I got local doctors involved, who believe they have the studies to show a different way of healing brain damage.
In May, I showed you Charmaine half way through her treatments. Now this update as she is finished her 40 treatments.
A year ago the bright lights of the stage began to dim for well known singer Charmaine Neville.
"All I had before was anxiety, fear, you know. I didn't know what was going to happen," said Neville through tears.
The entertainer went from very physical stage performances to a frail, thin frame. She'd lost balance and strength. Her hands were knotted. There were headaches, weakness, dizziness, blurry vision, and worst of all, the musicians she has loved for decades and the songs she had committed to memory, were unrecognizable.
"I didn't know what was wrong. I thought I was gonna die," said Neville.
Doctors didn't know either, until she was rush to the emergency room one day and diagnosed with CADASIL syndrome (cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy), a hereditary stroke disorder that progressively gets worse.
Doctors said nothing could be done.
So I made a call to doctors that Medical Watch has been following since the '90s, doctors who have been studying and using high pressure oxygen to heal brain tissue in animals and humans since the '80s.
CADASIL had never been treated before, but I asked would they try them on Charmaine and let our cameras document what happened.
LSU Health Sciences Center's emergency medicine specialists, doctors Keith Van Meter and Paul Harch, say they have successfully treated and studied patients and animals with the same type of brain injuries from strokes, aging and dementia.
But Dr. Harch said that Charmaine's 40-year addiction to nicotine was also destroying the blood vessels in her brain, and the treatment would not work unless she stopped.
"It's why all doctors try to get people to stop smoking. One of the most powerful constrictors of blood vessels in the same range as the effects of cocaine in terms of constricting blood vessels, is nicotine. And so she is constantly constricting blood vessels and eventually these little blood vessels can clot and have a micro stroke and that's what her syndrome is," said Dr. Paul Harch, who is the chief of hyperbaric medicine at LSUHSC.
"I took every ashtray in the house, every pack of cigarettes, every book of matches, every cigarette lighter, and I threw them all in the garbage and I took the one ashtray that I kept by the side of my bed, and I took it downstairs and I washed it. And it took me 45 minutes to get to the true bottom of that ashtray. And I saw, that's what I had been putting in myself for 40 years," Neville said.
Over the last few months, Charmaine went through 40 hour-long, custom-dosed dives, as they are called, in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
The treatment is approved for divers with the bends and for healing wounds in skin tissue of diabetics, but not for healing brain tissue. Brain scans in the West Jefferson Medical Center lab showed asymmetrical blood flow.
Before the treatment, Charmaine needed assistance walking, struggling with balance. After 20 treatments, she no longer felt like someone had to walk with her in case she fell.
Now, with all 40 initial treatments done, Charmaine not only walked for the doctors in her evaluation, but she strutted her stuff and gave her best second-line move for the camera.
"I can sing again. I can play drums again. I can play percussion again. I can walk my dogs. I'm gonna get on my bike," she said happily.
"She came out of the room and was walking without help and talking, so I knew Charmaine was on her way back," said Cleo Banquer, a friend and the person who organized the concert fundraiser in June for Charmaine.
"Oh, it's a tremendous difference. Charmaine, her whole energy level has increased. Her movement has increased. Everyday that she came in, it was something new something different," said Hans Lischka, the hyperbaric technician.
Her brain scans, after the treatment, show a widespread 25 percent improvement in blood flow according to Dr. Harch. He says on scans, her brain looks more normal and symmetrical, with more definition in specific areas of the brain.
Many doctors are still skeptical and won't allow their patients to get this treatment.
Charmaine went back to the doctors who told her there was no treatment for CADASIL.
"When they saw me they said, 'Oh my God, look at you. You look wonderful,'" said Neville.
Dr. Harsh said while Charmaine's mini strokes were caused by genetics and smoking, he has helped people who have the same types of brain loss from using drugs, dementia from cardiovascular disease, divers with decompression sickness, high blood pressure, or diabetes.
And while Charmaine is not completely well, she is improving on a second course of treatments now and will need occasional booster sessions to continue fixing past damage from smoking and ongoing damage from CADASIL.
"We're trying to repair the damage that's been done, and to repair that damage, it takes more treatment. I should be able to get her to a higher level of function. With periodic treatment, we should be able to maintain her there and counteract the effects of the continued CADASIL degeneration," said Dr. Harch.
"I don't make them think that this is a cure (or) I'm cured you know. But I am better and I can feel it and I know people can see it, said Neville who still at times uses a cane to assure balance as she walks.
Because hyperbaric oxygen treatments have not been approved for brain tissue healing, insurance will not pay for this treatment.
Still, people with brain damage, including military veterans with PTSD, come to New Orleans from around the world for treatment.
Since our first story ran in May, people with CADASIL from around the world have contacted Neville.