NEW ORLEANS - She brings her New Orleans style of entertainment and music to fans around the world. But suddenly, singer Charmaine Neville noticed she was not acting like herself.
Numerous hospital visits and exams left doctors baffled.
But then a phone call turned her fate around and our cameras chronicled that journey.
She's known for her high energy, dance moves and voice. But last year, the well known singer and entertainer knew something was terribly wrong.
"I've been on stage and been so confused, I didn't know who my musicians were. I didn't know what I was supposed to be singing, songs that I have sang my whole life and I didn't know the words to the songs. I couldn't remember how to dance, couldn't remember how to play percussion or drums or anything," said Neville.
Her second home, the stage, became confusing and unrecognizable.
"I didn't know what was wrong. I thought I was gonna die," she recalls.
Neville became weak, dropped 30 pounds, had severe headaches and outbursts. She even forgot to feed her beloved pets, and herself.
"I had put something on the stove so I could fix myself something to eat and I went upstairs and I forgot about it and almost burned the house down. And my son moved back in with me to help me out because I was afraid I couldn't even walk down the steps," Neville said.
Then one day last year, I got a phone call from a mutual friend Donna Duhe'. She was crying, saying that once again Charmaine was in the hospital. This time there was a diagnosis though. It was a brain condition nine words long that is called CADASIL syndrome for short. That is an acronym for cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy. It's the most common form of a hereditary stroke disorder that progressively gets worse. Doctors said there was nothing that could be done to help her.
"She has sensory symptoms. She has motor problems. She has balance coordination. She has cognitive complaints. She has a constellation of them consistent with the fact that it has affected her whole brain," explained Dr. Harch.
For nearly 20 years, Medical Watch has followed two LSU Health Sciences Center Doctors, head of Emergency Medicine, Dr. Keith Van Meter, and head of Hyperbaric Medicine and Wound Care, Dr. Paul Harch. They have published numerous findings using hyperbaric oxygen in animals and people to heal the brain, from strokes, injuries, concussions, war wounds such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), near drownings, and birth deficiencies such as autism and cerebral palsy. They use specific doses of high oxygen treatments to help restore brain function. It's proven to help divers with decompression sickness called the bends and heal skin and tissue wounds in diabetics. So Eyewitness News asked Dr. Harch if he would treat and study Neville's condition while our cameras documented what happened.
"I expect her to improve and if she doesn't, I will be very surprised," said Dr. Harch in March after realizing that her condition affected the white matter of her brain, something he's had success with before.
He agreed under one condition, Neville had to stop smoking. Addiction to the powerful drug nicotine causes the same micro strokes or brain vessel clogging and bleeding as her genetic CADASIL syndrome.
"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," Dr. Harch explained.
"Oh I was 14 first time I stole a cigarette. Fourteen-years-old," Neville remembers.
Time passed and was wasted. She could not stop. Then, with another hospital scare and my tough love reality check, she had a wake up call about how serious her health condition was and what an opportunity the oxygen treatments were. She quit. That alone improved her health.
"I didn't realize that I had no taste buds from smoking for so long. Now that I have quit smoking, and it has been exactly 30 days and I'm proud of that, and I can taste food again and it tastes so wonderful," Neville said back in March at her initial evaluation by Dr. Harch.
Now smoke free, West Jefferson Medical Center donated brain scans so Dr. Harsh could scientifically document any changes from treatment. On the pre-treatment scan, he clearly saw some deficits from CADASIL syndrome, smoking and some past injuries Neville says came from abuse.
"You can see your left temporal lobe has got a little asymmetry to it. You don't have blood flow there in the front part of it compared to the right. Do you see it?" Dr. Harch asked Neville as they look at her brain blood flow scan together.
Then her 40 days of one hour oxygen treatments began. Now halfway through, Neville's motor skills and balance appear better. So do other brain functions such as memory.
"To me it was phenomenal because for me to, I actually started crying because I felt so good to be on stage again and to be somewhat myself again. And I felt the energy you know, that I always feel when I'm on that stage," Neville said after 21 treatments.
"She's had a fairly dramatic and early response and my expectation, and always hope, is that it continues," said Dr. Harch.
Even though studies have reproduced this brain healing, idling neurons returning some function and what doctors believe is new growth of blood vessels in damaged areas bringing in new oxygen, some in the neurology field still question hyperbaric oxygen to restore brain function. But Dr. Harch believes Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is the future.
Neville has now performed at both the French Quarter Festival and the Jazz and Heritage Festival since her treatments began and she has felt better on stage.
She is convinced enough to continue with the second half of her oxygen dives and is anxious to see if her brain scans show the same improvement as she is noticing on stage.
"What a wonderful world," Neville sings into the microphone on stage.
Musicians, such as Dr. John and some of the Neville Brothers, along with a dozen other local favorites will put on a fundraising festival for Charmaine on June 24 at the Farmer's Market in Westwego. It is from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. with food and music all day. Admission will be $10.
Editor's Notes: Medical Reporter Meg Farris will continue to follow Charmaine Neville's treatment and do a follow up report in July with the brain scan findings after 40 hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatments. Dr. Harch was asked by Ms. Farris to do the treatments without compensation. At this time, he does not plan to publish this case study. West Jefferson Medical Center also donated its services of before and after brain scans. Many other businesses and volunteers also came together to help Charmaine get to and from her treatments since she could not drive herself.