April 25, 2018 04:09 PM
Updated April 26, 2018 01:17 PM
Featured on The News & Observer

The first time Mike Maze noticed something was wrong was in 2010, on a motorcycle ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway. He was in the middle of a deep curve when suddenly he was overtaken by dizziness and then, panic.

Over the next couple of years, the longtime WRAL meteorologist said he became “constantly dizzy” — he had trouble walking in a straight line, he became dizzy during one-on-one conversations and he had more and more difficulty driving.

It wasn’t until just two months ago, after years of fruitless doctor visits and an escalation in symptoms that led to panic attacks at work, that Maze found the answer to his debilitating problem with this simple Google search: “why can’t I drive on the interstate at night?”

The answer: vertical heterophoria, a misalignment of the eye muscles that can trigger symptoms such as dizziness, headaches and anxiety.

Now, with treatment, Maze is pretty much back to normal — and helping inform others who may suffer with the same disorder.

‘A month of hell’

Maze, who has been with WRAL for 24 years, said this week that after that first dizzy spell on the motorcycle (he sold it not long after) things got progressively worse.

He started seeing a neurokinesiologist in Chapel Hill who diagnosed him with gluten ataxia, so he went on a strict diet and stopped eating gluten and dairy. It didn’t help.

He was soon running into walls, grasping tables to steady himself while talking to people, and dreading getting into his car. At first he was uncomfortable driving at night and on interstates — the cars zipping by made him grip his steering wheel and fight back the panic — so he took secondary roads. Then secondary roads caused trouble.

“There’s one stretch of (Interstate) 40 between Wade Avenue and Harrison Avenue, and I don’t know if it’s because the sky opens up — now I know why that’s the case — but the cars zipping by would make me feel really uncomfortable and I’d just grasp onto the steering wheel and I’d get really anxious and panic would set in,” he said in an interview this week in the WRAL Gardens. “I really couldn’t drive.”

In February this year — Maze calls it “a month of hell” — things got way worse. One night during a live newscast, while watching a David Crabtree report from the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Maze sat at the anchor desk beside Gerald Owens and Deborah Morgan and began having a panic attack. There was nothing he could do except grip the desk and warn his colleagues about what was happening.

“I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to make it, because my weather segment is coming up,’” he said. “I just kept telling myself, ‘hold on Mike, hold on Mike, hold on Mike’.”

Maze knows now that visual stimuli such as lights and movement can set off dizzy spells for people with vertical heterophoria.

“Apparently, the lighting in the studio was starting to impact me,” he said. “It was the end of February through the beginning of March, where every time I walked up to the anchor desk to do weather, a panic attack would start to come in. I’d start to get this overwhelming anxiety. I’d get flushed, I’d get hot, I’d start to sweat. As soon as I got into ‘the Mike Maze role’ where I’d start doing weather and I’d start walking over to the weather wall, I was fine.

“But I remember there were nights when I was so upset because this panic attack was coming on, I’d be standing at the weather wall and I’d wonder if people at home could see my hand shaking because I was so, just, going nuts.”

Finally, an answer

After Maze Googled “Why can’t I drive on the interstate at night?” and found the answer at the Neurovisual Center of New York website, he felt a huge sense of relief. A testimonial and questionnaire on the site echoed nearly all of his symptoms.

“Oh my gosh, I found out what’s wrong with me, I’m not going crazy,” he told himself. “Because at one point I thought I was going insane, because all this stuff was going on and I couldn’t figure it out. You go to doctors and they don’t know what’s wrong with you.”

Maze found Dr. Jeffrey Handschumacher with Family Eye Care Center in Raleigh, one of the few doctors in the country treating vertical heterophoria with corrective lenses, and was eager for an appointment. His symptoms were getting more severe just when he was under more stress at work: In early February, WRAL chief meteorologist Greg Fishel announced a 6-week medical leave of absence, and Maze took over his duties.

“I started to wonder, is it stress that brought it on because the impact of Greg not being here, and I was having to carry the load. Maybe that’s what set it off, I don’t know,” Maze said. “I was having to handle everything and we had some big weather events and just the idea of thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s not here.’ It was a lot more stress.”

Handschumacher said that stress is one of the many situations that can cause episodes or make them worse.

“There are a lot of things that can trigger it,” Handschumacher said. “Stress can do it. And I have patients come in and they’re just driving down the road and it happens. An interesting thing is the cloverleaf (exchange) on interstates. They tell me they drove it one day and took it really sharp, it triggered the symptoms and it went downhill from there.”

By the time patients get to a doctor like Handschumacher, they have likely already had multiple doctor visits, seeing ENTs or neurologists and getting MRIs and CT scans.

“I always tell people, I’m not your first stop,’ he said. “Make sure you see them to make sure you don’t have a tumor or something major and if they’re not finding nothing wrong with them, let’s look at your eyes.”

Handschumacher has been practicing for 20 years and treating vertical heterophoria and binocular vision dysfunction for almost two years. He was trained in Michigan by Dr. Debby Feinberg, considered a pioneer in the study of binocular vision dysfunction.

Feinberg cites current research that says 10 percent of the population have vertical heterophoria, but anecdotal research indicates the number could be much higher. The issue is that the condition is largely unheard of — even by many physicians. The key, she said, is education and awareness.

“We have found that the vision questionnaire that we’ve had validated by two statisticians to be the gold standard for identifying this population,” she said. “If I could have every doctor at least sort through that questionnaire, they would know who needs to go on medication and who just needs glasses.”

‘My eyes were finally working together’

Handschumacher examined Maze — an evaluation takes 90 minutes or more and involves both eye tests and lots of questions — and confirmed that he not only has a vertical misalignment, but a horizontal alignment problem as well.

“The device that they used — I mean, I could really tell how misaligned they were,” Maze said. “So he started fitting me with test frames clipped on my glasses. When I would look with my regular glasses on without prisms, it felt like this eye was looking straight and this eye was looking off in the distance. And when he put the test lenses on, it felt like my focus was drawn together and to a point. It was like my eyes were finally working together.”

Maze said the prism lenses felt like an instant cure.

“As soon as I got out of his office I immediately jumped on I-40 and I could drive,” Maze said. “I had no problem! It was like, wow, glasses can do that? And apparently it solved my problem.”

Sharing is helping others

Sitting in WRAL Gardens on a cloudy day this week, Maze said his symptoms are “beginning to creep back,” but he has been assured that this is normal.

Handschumacher said Maze’s eyes needed time to acclimate to the first lenses, but he ultimately needed more adjustment. He has already been evaluated for an updated set of prism lenses, and that should take care of it.

Maze wrote about all of this in a short Facebook post on April 19 — a post that has been shared almost 400 times — and he has since heard from a number of people who believe they may have the same condition.

“On Facebook I feel compelled to share things about my life,” Maze said. “I shared about my dog and him having cancer and dying, and people fell in love with him. I have a pretty good following and people are very kind and understanding. When I put this out there, I didn’t think I’d have the kind of response that I did. … I’ve had so many people message me — one guy from Princeton in Johnston County said, ‘Oh my god, I think you may have cured me.'”

Vertical Heterophoria

What is vertical heterophoria?

Dr. Jeffrey Handschumacher explains:

“Vertical heterophoria is a small misalignment of the eye muscles where one eye wants to sit up and one eye wants to sit down. It’s not enough that it’s causing double vision, you still see one image but it’s putting a strain on the eye muscles that will trigger symptoms such as dizziness, headache, anxiety. It’s just enough to throw your sense of space off balance, so when you’re walking you feel a little wobbly, you feel unsteady, you may drift to one side a lot. … I’ve had people who say when they go to the grocery store or Lowe’s or Home Depot they have to grab a cart for steadiness because they feel like the big shelves trigger this sensation that they’re going to fall over or stumble. … It’s just because their eye muscles are sending two different signals to the brain, not merging into one, and the brain doesn’t know what to do.

What causes vertical heterophoria?

Dr. Debby Feinberg says vertical heterophoria could be congenital, meaning you’re born with it and muscle strain over time will cause symptoms. It could also be brought on by a head injury, such as a concussion. Feinberg said it’s possible — even likely — that a severe case of whiplash Mike Maze suffered during a car accident in the late 1980s could have resulted in nerve damage that led to this. “It doesn’t have to have happened two weeks ago or even two months ago,” she said. The body compensates to a point and his was compensating constantly, and he got to a tipping point where he could no longer compensate.

Vertical heterophoria can even be brought on by a stroke, radiation or chemotherapy, Feinberg said. “Anything that affects the brain in any way can tip people into this condition.”