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Healthy You

Unraveling the Mystery

Thursday, December 07, 2017 7:45 AM

By all accounts, Sarah Lisitza of Skokie is a good student and aspiring artist, with no history of medical issues. So it was surprising when the teen’s health took a serious downturn beginning last January, the second semester of her junior year at Niles North High School.


Sudden Symptoms
Sarah began experiencing severe headaches, lightheadedness and hand tremors. She was in the school nurse’s office as often as three times a week, recalled her mom Elaine Lisitza. Understandably, the family grew increasingly worried about 18-year-old Sarah’s health. Could it be stress-related or something more serious?

“There was a suggestion that it could be anxiety, but in my heart I knew that wasn’t the case,” explained Lisitza. “I know my daughter.”

Sarah’s symptoms continued to worsen with daily bouts of nausea. Concerned about the teen’s sudden, rapid weight loss, her pediatrician referred her to NorthShore Pediatric Gastroenterologist Vincent Biank, MD, for specialized GI care.

“I did a comprehensive workup on Sarah, with a range of lab tests and procedures including upper and lower endoscopy, all of which came back perfectly normal,” explained Dr. Biank, who holds an academic title at the Pritzker School of Medicine. “Clearly, there was something else going on.”

Digging Deeper
Dr. Biank suspected that Sarah’s condition might be caused by an issue with her autonomic nervous system (ANS) and recommended she undergo specialized autonomic testing. The ANS controls numerous involuntary body functions including heart rate, digestion, perspiration and swallowing.

Taking advantage of NorthShore’s ongoing collaboration with Mayo Clinic, Dr. Biank reviewed Sarah’s complex case with Mayo Clinic Pediatric Gastroenterologist Mark Bartlett, MD. Dr. Bartlett’s second opinion confirmed Dr. Biank’s recommendation for autonomic testing, providing the family with added confidence that they were on the right track.

 “We develop collaborative relationships with fellow specialists like Dr. Biank, so we can provide these second opinion consults efficiently,” noted Dr. Bartlett. “It also is convenient for patients to get a second opinion from Mayo, while keeping their care close to home.”

“Dr. Biank has been so amazing and helpful in making sure we found answers,” said Lisitza, a self-described “mama bear” desperate to get to the bottom of her daughter’s debilitating condition. “Sarah kept saying ‘Mom, I just want to know what’s wrong with me.’”

Specialized Testing
This summer, Sarah underwent testing with autonomic board-certified specialist Alexandru Barboi, MD, FACP, Director of NorthShore’s autonomics laboratory—the only one of its kind in the northern suburbs and one of the most comprehensive in the Chicagoland area. Using noninvasive diagnostics, Dr. Barboi conclusively diagnosed Sarah with dysautonomia, a condition involving a malfunction of the autonomic nervous system.

“Dysautonomia is frequently a genetic trait and a lifelong condition, so the earlier we figure it out the better in terms of helping patients manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life,” explained Dr. Barboi, who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

Sarah’s nausea and stomach pain have improved thanks to medication prescribed by Dr. Biank. The family continues to work with both Drs. Barboi and Biank to manage her well-being through diet and lifestyle changes. The collaborating physicians also have worked with staff at Sarah’s high school to educate them about her condition and advocate for modifications to help keep her healthy.

“This is a long haul and not something that will get better overnight,” noted Dr. Barboi, “but typically better understanding leads to better function.”

Sarah, a passionate artist, is looking forward to a productive senior year and beyond. And her family stands fully behind her.

“We have so much peace of mind now knowing Sarah’s diagnosis,” added Lisitza. “We were certain she was really sick, and we’re grateful to Dr. Biank for being so insightful.”