By Sarah Colson
To most people, the idea of spinning in a motorized chair at the dizzying speed of 300 degrees per second sounds like a good way to lose their lunch. For Hampton, Tenn.-native Glenn Guy, a long-time sufferer of Meniere’s disease and former U.S. Army tank gunner, however, it was his saving grace.
“I came over to the VA (the Mountain Home VA Medical Center) and they put me through a bunch of tests,” Guy said. “They’ve got this spinning chair and I said I’d try it. They put me in it and I felt good. We don’t know why, but it helps.”
Dr. Stephanie Rouse is part of the VA’s audiology research team and has been with Guy since those initial tests in 2007. The research already going on at the VA was one reason why Guy decided to volunteer in the first place. The benefits are mutual. Rouse said Guy’s willingness to volunteer his time and experience to the VA has helped further their research.
“He noticed that after the first spin, he actually felt better,” Rouse said. “So it’s not clinically out there for a treatment, but there is a new study that’s being conducted here now. He actually is the reason they started inquiring about that study. He would walk in imbalanced and walk out perfectly fine.”
About 10 years ago, several years before that first rotary chair experience, Guy’s spells of dizziness and lightheadedness were so bad that they were affecting his longtime career with Snap-on Tools in Elizabethton.
“I was sitting at a table one day inspecting wrenches and things just started going round,” he said. “So I made it to the office, they called the rescue squad and took me to the hospital. They couldn’t find anything wrong. It happened a couple times like that and they would call the rescue squad.”
Eventually, the episodes became so routine, Guy just stopped going to the hospital. Instead, his son would pick him up from work and put him to bed for hours on end. After a few months of that, Guy hit his breaking point after repeated falls at home.
Since his wife couldn’t help him up, Guy said she would just give him a blanket on the floor until he recovered. Desperate, Guy saw a specialist in Nashville who told him the only thing to do was to cut a nerve inside his left ear.
“For whatever reason, it didn’t work out like it was supposed to,” Guy said of the surgery. “I play golf. That doctor said I’d be doing a cartwheel and shooting in the 70s. Well I ain’t doing no cartwheel and I ain’t shooting in the 70s. So I started coming over to the VA and they just started doing a few tests here and there, but when I got in the chair, that’s when I started feeling good.”
As it turns out, Guy had offered to volunteer for a research project for people who suffer from imbalance and vertigo caused by inner ear issues. That project involved him spinning clockwise in a rotary chair in order to stimulate the organs of the inner ear and get them functioning properly. Guy would leave the clinic vertigo-free for up to a few months. Then one day, he had an idea.
“I asked them, ‘You ever spin it counterclockwise?’” Guy said. “They told me, ‘No, people can’t take it.’ I said, ‘Let’s try it.’”
So they did. And the results turned out to be better than Guy and his team of researchers could have hoped for. Guy was vertigo-free for six months after his first treatment of spinning both ways, then a year the next time, then for nearly a year and a half. The results surprised the team at the VA, to say the least.
“What happened with him was not typical with what we see with people that have this problem,” said Ginny Alexander, research audiologist and REAP (Research Enhancement Award Program) coordinator. “They don’t really understand why it has improved it. We have a physical therapist that also does research and rehabilitation techniques and she actually based some of his experience to submit a grant to see where and how this could be used as a therapy as opposed to a diagnostic test.”
The research the grant will fund is set to start at the beginning of 2016. For now, the team at Mountain Home is continuing treatments with Guy and trying to figure out the many ways his experience could potentially change the lives of others.
“So far all we have is Mr. Guy and his experience,” said Dr. Owen Murnane, one of the audiologists and researchers on the team working with Guy, “which in clinical medicine, is often how you find these things out. Often you start with individual patient experience and then you go from there. So now we are going to do a more systematic study to see if in fact that treatment works, how effective it is, does it work on a large number of people, does it work on just certain people that have certain types of problems with balance?”
In the meantime, Guy said he’s just happy to help. The veteran served as a tank gunner in Germany from 1962 to 1965 and is eager to use his experience to further the audiologists’ research.
“Hearing protection wasn’t a big thing then,” Guy said of his time in service. “So the gun was right here (by his left ear) and that’s when I started having hearing loss from shooting that thing. Now, if I can help another veteran, I’d love to. That’s the reason I come over. I know how it feels and if they can get some help, that’d be great.”
Murnane said it’s that attitude that leads to discoveries. Guy’s experience as a tank gunner has led Murnane and his team to research more about the correlation between noise exposure that causes hearing loss and how that exposure might also cause damage to the other part of the inner ear that controls balance. The new grant will be used to study that connection. Right now, the researchers are collaborating at three sites: Mountain Home, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.
“We’re now going to be able to do a better and more efficient job of diagnosing hearing and balance problems,” he said, “and then arguably more important, to have effective treatments. It’s really about improving somebody’s quality of life at the end of the day; that’s the ultimate goal of our research. There are also secondary benefits to the community here. Not only to help with diagnosis of hearing and balance problems, but also the other benefits are training and education. We’re really appreciative of Mr. Guy’s time and willingness to come here and help us benefit from his experience. It’s people like him that sometimes lead to discoveries that can help other patients.”
For Guy, he’s not too concerned about why the rotary chair has helped him so much. He’s just glad he is able to enjoy his retirement without spinning in circles every day. But the VA researchers certainly are excited about the research in the coming months. Alexander said their findings could potentially make waves not only in the realm of audiology diagnosis and rehabilitation, but for the broader community as well.
“People don’t really know all of the research advancements we make here,” Alexander said. “The community would be surprised to know that there’s a lot going on here at Mountain Home.”