When 13-year-old Hudson Stimmler told his parents he couldn’t hear from his left ear in December 2017, they didn’t take him too seriously.
“We’d talk to him, and he would respond,” said his mother Meghan Stimmler, who is a registered nurse. “We were like, ‘Yeah, you’re fine.’”
But within days, Hudson started experiencing severe dizziness to the point of screaming, crying and vomiting.
After a trip to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles emergency room, CT scans and a round of testing, Hudson was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease.
Meniere’s disease is a chronic ear disorder caused by fluid build-up in the inner ear. Symptoms include episodes of vertigo and tinnitus as well as hearing loss, which can become permanent.
Its cause unknown, Meniere’s disease is extremely rare in children — it is more likely to happen to adults between the ages of 40 and 60.
“It was not fun,” said Hudson, who is the youngest of four children. “Every month, I’d have a week of just straight vertigo, and there wasn’t really anything we could do for it,” he said. “We would just have to wait it out. Once it was done, I would go back to normal life.”
The unpredictable and disruptive nature of the disease started to take a toll on Hudson’s schooling.
“It would be a constant process of remaking everything I had missed and never being fully caught up,” said Hudson, who is an eighth grader at La Cañada High School 7/8.
“It’s heartbreaking to see your kid in bed for days, missing school, friends and activities,” Meghan said. “He was at the hospital for Christmas two years ago. He has missed out on his whole life during this illness.”
Remedy: Radical surgery
Despite dietary changes and medication, Hudson’s condition worsened over the summer and led to 14 days of hospitalization.
“Surgery was a pretty radical decision, but we were at the point where he was not responding to anything else,” Meghan explained.
In October 2018, Hudson underwent a craniotomy at UCLA Medical Center. The six-hour brain surgery severed his vestibular nerve to prevent his debilitating vertigo.
“The first two weeks were pretty rough, but once we got the pain under control, it’s been super smooth,” said Hudson, who now wears a hearing aid. “I feel a lot better. It’s nice knowing I won’t be getting sick anymore.”
A rapport that works
Since his surgery, Hudson has been working with Nora Darakjian, DPT, instructor of clinical physical therapy at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, to improve his overall balance.
The Stimmlers chose USC for physical therapy specifically because of USC Physical Therapy’s dizziness and balance rehabilitation services.
“It’s scary having a kid who cannot sit up or walk to the bathroom,” Meghan said. “Once we got to Nora, our home became a safe place for him.”
When Hudson first started working with Darakjian, he could only sit up for five minutes. Thanks to the progressive exercises he has been doing, which includes gaze stabilization training, Hudson can now sit up for hours and run for two minutes.
Hudson credits his rapid progress to the good relationship he developed with Darakjian.
“She has this firm strength that he listens to and respects,” Meghan explained. “I am so blessed that Nora has been his therapist because they have a rapport that just works. I think that’s been a huge part of how much he has progressed.”
Hudson said he enjoys his physical therapy sessions with Darakjian, which sometimes involve obstacle courses.
“She always tries to make me laugh,” he said. “She always makes everything fun.”
Putting in the work
Determined to get better, Hudson is a dutiful student who continues practicing exercises when he is at home.
“I’ve learned that the harder you work, the faster you will get better,” he explained.
“If I worked on it extra at home, the next day I’d feel a lot better, and it would be easier. But if I just worked on it the minimum, it would take a lot longer to get better.”
Darakjian said that Hudson is a prime example of the neuroplasticity of the human brain.
“It reminded me how our brains can make remarkable gains in a short period of time,” she said.
A wise old soul
Darakjian completed her neurology residency at USC in 2015, which, along with additional clinical education for vestibular treatment, has allowed her to handle Hudson’s unique case.
“My residency provided me with the mentorship that allows me to assess every individual’s needs and partner with each individual to attain their goals,” Darakjian said. “I was trained to be a critical thinker and use evidence-based practices to provide optimal treatment.”
While his life has begun to return to normal, Hudson said he has learned not to take things for granted.
“I look at something and I try to enjoy it a lot more because I remember a few months ago that I wouldn’t be doing any of this,” he said. Meghan, who describes her son as a “wise old soul,” has been especially amazed by his resilience.
“Obviously there were times when my husband and I would get depressed because you just kept trying to find answers and ways to help him feel better,” she explained. “But it makes me realize how bad he felt because it’s almost like he didn’t have time to get down and feel sorry for himself. He just kept fighting.”
Back to the beach?
Hudson is on track to return to school full-time, but what he looks forward to the most is being able to surf again.
“I’m at the beach right now, and it’s kind of bumming me out that I can’t really do it,” Hudson said, over the phone during a recent family trip to Hawaii — their first vacation since his diagnosis.
But Darakjian is confident that he will be riding the waves soon enough.
“Hudson has been practicing standing on a board,” Darakjian said. “His balance has been improving and, as he recovers from surgery over this year, he will return to swimming initially and then surfing.”
— Stephanie Corral