In May 2008, Shantel Bell of Winona graduated with a bachelor’s degree in classics. But, in the midst of battling a baffling neurological disorder that nearly blinded her, Bell spent much of the academic year wondering if she would ever see the day.
“It’s a miracle, after all the stuff I went through last year,” Bell said. “I can laugh at all this now because I lived through it.”
That wasn’t the case in her junior year. The first symptoms was a ringing in the ears. By that summer, the ringing got worse and she was sleepy all the time. During the fall of 2007, extreme headaches started and her neck got really stiff.
“I couldn’t just pop a couple of pain relievers and be fine for a few hours,” Bell said. “I was living in constant pain, and it was draining what little energy I had in the first place.”
Though she did not know it at the time, Bell was dealing with the early symptoms of intracranial hypertension, a rare and mysterious neurological disorder in which cerebrospinal fluid pressure within the skull is too high. The disorder is frequently misdiagnosed, which is exactly what happened to Bell. One physician even suggested that her illness was a mental disease instead of a physical one, and that she should go see a psychiatrist.
“I don’t really blame the doctors for not knowing about it,” Bell said. “It’s a rare thing. They usually don’t know what causes it, what cures it, or which treatments may actually work.”
Back home in Winona, Bell’s parents feared the worst. A few years ago, one of Shantel’s cousins died, and the family was still reeling from another cousin’s unexpected death. “I wondered if it was my turn to lose my child,” said Cindy Bell, Shantel’s mother. “It was pretty rough on us.”
Meanwhile, even as Bell’s condition continued to deteriorate, she put on her best face and soldiered on. “I’d drag myself to class, but I was seeing double and I felt like my head was about to explode,” she said.
The disease was taking a toll on Shantel’s spirit, too. “IH can make you feel defective,” she said. “It can make you afraid that your teachers or your friends will think you are just lazy when you’re having a bad day.”
A local optometrist referred Bell to a neurologist who accurately diagnosed her disorder. and referred her to an IH specialist, who convinced the family to agree to a surgical procedure that would safely drain the excess spinal fluid into Bell’s abdomen, thus relieving the pressure on her brain. As her health improved, she returned to UM and completed her classes.
“I see a young women with great courage and the inner strength to succeed even under the most trying conditions,” said Aileen Ajootian, chair of the Department of Classics. “She should be an inspiration for other students who confront adversity.”