LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Stem cell therapy saved the eyesight of a Fountain Valley mother.
CBS2's Lisa Sigell reported that Julia Matsumoto's medical odyssey began in October 2010.
"I was 31 years old, and I had just a severe headache," she said.
Matsumoto said her headache was the beginning of a terrifying ordeal.
While her pain began to ease, her world got "darker and darker," Matsumoto said.
Within a month, all she could see in her field of vision was the size of a pin drop.
"And eventually complete darkness," Matsumoto said.
Matsumoto was diagnosed with optic neuritis, an autoimmune swelling of the nerve connecting her eyes to her brain. No one knows what causes it or why it happened to Matsumoto.
"For some reason, her body is attacking itself and causing inflammation and damaging the nerve," Dr. Larry Geisse said.
Geisse, a Los Alamitos ophthalmologist, said the condition usually responds to steroids like prednisone.
"That could control it. There's no question that when we gave her that, her vision was pretty good," Geisse said.
The dosage Matsumoto needed, however, caused extreme side effects.
"I gained over 100 pounds within three months," Matsumoto said.
The stretch marks on Matsumoto's arms were nothing compared to the organ and joint damage going on inside.
"It got to the point where I couldn't walk. I couldn't enjoy my life," she said.
Matsumoto's vision came at such a high price, even Dr. Geisse started to wonder.
"Is it better sometimes to, in this case, let a person go blind? Or are you gonna kill them with the steroids?" Geisse said.
Matsumoto decided to stop the prednisone.
"I told my daughter that I would always remember her. The way she looked. And she'd have to describe to me her prom dress, her wedding dress. And it was very difficult to do, but it was the best choice for me at the time because I was slowly dying from the medication," she said.
Matsumoto accepted losing her vision. She also lost her job and her health insurance.
She didn't lose her grip on Dr. Geisse, who continued to look for answers.
"She's just that kind of person who touches your heart. The feeling you have is that you would do anything to get her better," Geisse said.
Geisse learned of Dr. Mark Berman, a cosmetic surgeon in Beverly Hills who was testing stem cell therapy as an alternative to medication.
"As a cosmetic surgeon, I've been harvesting fat to throw it out because people want to get rid of it. Now I tell people who come for liposuction, 'Don't be so quick,'" Berman said. "Your fat is loaded with stem cells."
Geisse was intrigued.
"He said, 'I think this might work for you,'" Matsumoto said. "I said, 'Well, I don't have anything else to lose.'"
Matsumoto got her first treatment in November 2011.
It began with liposuction to her belly. Next, the stem cells were separated from the fat and the blood. Those concentrated healing cells were then infused back into Matsumoto's body through an I.V.
"We saw her like, three or four days after the procedure, and I'm telling you, it was just miraculous," Geisse said.
"I will not forget this, but there was a hummingbird whizzing by and it had…I could see this bright red on it…and I wasn't able to see that before," Matsumoto said.
Matsumoto was also able to put away her cane.
"I could walk around on my own," she said.
"With the stem cells we can at least keep her vision, and we've got her off the steroids completely, and that just in itself has been like, a miracle," Geisse said.
Matsumoto said it's wonderful to feel like a normal mother.
"I am forever grateful. It's given me a new life," she said.
"Probably one of the most heartwarming Christmas cards I've ever received in my life when her son sent me a note. [It said], 'Thank you for giving my mom a second chance,'" Berman said.
To keep her vision, Matsumoto needs to repeat treatments every two months. Both doctors are treating her for free.
Stem cell therapies are experimental and not FDA-approved, reported Sigell.
For more on Matsumoto's story, click here.
For additional information on Berman, click here.
*Produced by CBS2/KCAL9 Medical Producer Gerri Shaftel Constant
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