By CATHY DYSON / THE FREE LANCE–STAR
Nichole Langa was describing the way a rare disease changed her husband from a vibrant athlete, enrolled in a leadership program with the federal government, to a man who can barely walk or talk and has gauze stuffed in his mouth to absorb excess saliva.
At times, she stopped and looked into the dark eyes of Constantin, a Romanian by birth and American by choice. Because of his physical limitations, Constantin couldn’t hold his wife’s hand or put his arm around her.
He reached out in one of the few ways left to him.
As Nichole described the way she gets him up, dressed and into the bathroom each morning—just as she does their 3-year-old son—Constantin motioned in sign language. She smiled and clasped his hand, telling a visitor:
“He just made the sign for ‘I love you.’ ”
The lives of the Langas, who live in King George County, have been strained in every way imaginable since an ailment named Wilson’s disease swooped down on them three years ago.
But friends, family and even a specialist at Yale who’s treating Constantin praise the way the young couple has coped. Nichole is 32, and Constantin is 30.
“We have a very unique bond,” Nichole said, “and I think if we didn’t, we never would have made it.”
COPPER IS THE PROBLEM
Wilson’s patients have a defective gene that prevents them from processing copper—an element that’s needed for good health but can be poisonous in excess.
Normal readings, taken after a 24-hour urinalysis, are 10 to 20 micrograms of copper.
At his highest levels, Constantin had 2,534 micrograms.
Nichole was pregnant with their son, Traian, who was born in January 2010, when Constantin first showed symptoms.
He wondered if he was experiencing sympathy pains and asked her if she had excess saliva.
She said no, and little more was said.
About three months after Traian’s birth, his father starting drooling heavily. He also fell regularly, too. The young parents began fighting, which was unusual for them, and assumed they were overwhelmed by baby demands.
Constantin started shopping online, more uncharacteristic behavior because both Langas are frugal, Nichole said.
He was anxious and couldn’t sleep.
Their primary care doctor suggested a psychiatrist who verified signs of mental illness. But no one could determine why Constantin had problems speaking, and swallowing, as well as with physical coordination.
One doctor said he didn’t know what was happening and told the Langas to come back in three months.
‘LIKE KICKING A BEEHIVE’
The Langas ended up at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and finally got a diagnosis by fall 2010. They had to wait another five weeks to see the right specialist.
Constantin was prescribed the safest of the limited drugs available, but a heavy dosage.
“Things got a thousand times worse when he started the medication,” Nichole said. “He went from falling to not walking at all.”
And he began to suffer incredible pain as the copper messed up signals from the brain. It directed his hands and feet to curl up and cramp constantly.
One of the few specialists on Wilson’s disease said the high dosage “was almost like kicking a beehive. You get them stirred up before they leave altogether,” said Dr.? Michael Schilsky, medical director of the Yale New Haven Transplantation Center in Connecticut.
He started seeing Constantin in August 2011. The heavy doses had been stopped, but they had caused the copper, stored throughout the body, to go into general circulation and cause problems to Constantin’s central nervous system.
Constantin’s mind was still as sharp as ever, said Micky Tingler, a college friend, but “he was trapped inside himself.”
For a time, he couldn’t even smile or grimace.
“It was like he had a dead face,” his wife said.