Primary angiitis of the central nervous system is a rare and possibly fatal inflammatory disease that affects a person’s brain and spinal cord. According to the National Institutes of Health, without “prompt recognition and therapy,” the disease, which affects fewer than 5,000 people in the United States, can be a killer.
Pam Greenberg, who was diagnosed with the deadly disease in California but now makes her living as a hypnotherapist in the Charleston area, has no idea why PACNS chose her. She does know, however, that her cocker spaniel saved her life – and that it is still possible that the lesions that plagued her brain then mysteriously disappeared could someday return.
Greenberg’s journey from her life as a healthy and active 51-year-old to becoming what she described as “a vegetable” and then returning to a mostly normal existence started on April 30, 2017. At the time, she was living in Simi Valley, California, and working on her hypnotherapy residency. She remembers texting her daughter Sydney at 3:04 p.m., then taking her dog, Hershey, outside. The next thing she recalled was the cocker spaniel growling, biting holes in her shirt and pushing her to stand up. Looking at her phone, she realized that she had been out for 27 minutes.
She remembers little about her hospital stay, other than “the doctor had an ugly yellow purse.” After an MRI discovered six lesions on her brain, a neurosurgeon declared that Greenberg was suffering from lymphoma, but another doctor disagreed. A brain biopsy confirmed that PACNS was the culprit. The budding hypnotherapist was prescribed prednisone, as well as chemotherapy once a month for six months.
Greenberg’s life was sliding downhill in a hurry. After a week in the hospital, she left in a wheelchair. She couldn’t walk and couldn’t even write, which “was so weird. I didn’t know what was happening to me.”
Greenberg’s situation got much worse before it improved. The chemo was supposed to be helping her, but an issue unrelated to the lesions on her brain was adding to her angst. Her needle phobia was one more hurdle she needed to circumvent.
“I was more afraid of the needle than the chemo,” she admitted.
And, though she spent two days in bed following her first round of chemotherapy, she carried on with her previously laid plans to move from the West Coast to the Charleston area. Three weeks after leaving the hospital, she flew to South Carolina – with Lindsey’s help – met with a real estate agent and bought a house in Mount Pleasant. She returned to California for another round of chemo and another MRI, which revealed that the largest lesion was shrinking. She had graduated from a wheelchair to a walker but still needed help getting out of bed and getting into and out of a car.
“I couldn’t do anything by myself,” she said.
In early August, barely three months after being diagnosed with PACNS, Greenberg’s brother, Scott Pressman, accompanied her on a flight to Atlanta, then she flew with daughter Lindsey to Charleston. Her parents arrived from Chattanooga to help out as well.
Greenberg’s fight to regain her old life included physical therapy three times a week, where she worked to reclaim the ability to complete what once were simple, everyday tasks – like getting out of a chair, walking and sitting on a toilet.
“My head knew what to do, but my body wouldn’t follow,” she remembers, pointing out that she also had a loftier goal in mind: to walk the length of the Ravenel Bridge.
By October 2017, Greenberg had traded in her walker for a cane, and, surprisingly, she also passed another major hurdle in her journal back to normalcy. An MRI showed that the lesions were gone, a situation that even drew a “wow” from Scott Lindhorst, M.D., who specializes in neuro-oncology and brain and spine tumors at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Dr. Lindhorst couldn’t guarantee that the lesions wouldn’t return, and he didn’t know for sure what caused them, though he told Greenberg that the culprit could be stress. He was certain of one thing, however.
“Your dog saved your life,” he said, and Greenberg noted that he told her she was only the fourth person he knew of who recovered from PACNS.
“That dog can have steak for the rest of his life. He can shit in my house if he wants to,” Greenberg exclaimed at the time. Unfortunately, Hershey passed away in February 2021.
Not long after receiving the news that the lesions were no more, around Thanksgiving 2017, Greenberg achieved the goal she had set for herself. Without the cane but holding onto the railing, she walked halfway across the bridge and back. By the following February, she was able to cover the entire bridge in both directions, an excursion of 5.4 miles.
“I paid for it the day after,” she stated.
By March 2018, she was back to work in her hypnotherapy practice though she was wearing a wig because she lost her hair during the chemo treatments. She’s down to one MRI per year, from four, and she is on medication because she had a seizure in 2021.
“It scares me not to be on it because I live by myself,” she commented.
Greenberg’s situation has continued to improve, both medically and professionally. Her book, “Roll On to Victory – What it takes to break free from what’s holding you back to start living life on your terms,” is scheduled to come out in May 2023. But always, in the back of her mind, is the thought that the lesions could return.
“When I had my first seizure, my life changed. I had a new normal. My old normal didn’t exist anymore,” she mused.
Her defense is the same message she imparts to her hypnotherapy clients: “If anything stresses you, just walk away. Does it bring you joy? Does it bring you happiness? Does it serve a purpose? If not, walk away.”
By Brian Sherman