Elizabeth Cougentakis was healthy, athletic and an outstanding student until 2004, when at age thirteen, she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis (MG). First, her vision and her ability to walk and feed herself were compromised. Then it became difficult to breath and quickly Elizabeth was completely disabled. Six months later, she was intubated to breathe and fed through a feeding tube.
MG, a neuromuscular autoimmune disorder that leads to muscle weakness and fatigue, can sometimes be managed with medications. Unfortunately, for Elizabeth, nothing worked and she continued to deteriorate. She was evaluated by several neurologists, had her thymus removed and underwent 17 sessions of IVIg and numerous plasmapheresis treatments. Desperate to save her life, her parents took her to Venezuela for an evaluation from another neurologist. Again, the treatment was ineffective and the doctors told her that she would be bedridden for the rest of her life.
In 2006, after nearly two years of hospital admissions and being dependent on ventilators and feeding tubes, Elizabeth joined Dr. Richard Burt’s stem cell study at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. Dr. Burt uses autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation to treat numerous autoimmune diseases, including MG. He harvests the patient’s own stem cells, administers a short course of chemotherapy and then reinfuses the stem cells to regenerate the immune system.
Elizabeth felt the results of the procedure almost immediately when she gained control of her eyes. She could chew her food and progressively all of her symptoms disappeared. Within a year after Dr. Burt’s procedure, Elizabeth recovered completely and for the last eight years, she has been healthy and requires no medication. Elizabeth, now 25, graduated from Hofstra University in 2015 and lives in New York City. In her spare time, she enjoys boxing and spending time with her dogs, with MG a fast-fading memory from her former life.