Migraine power couple
“I have always been proud of how well she keeps our family stable, on schedule and safe, even living with a chronic illness. I have been so impressed with the work she has done in headache advocacy and I have really seen her blossom as an eloquent, knowledgeable, and respected patient advocate.”
This was the answer headache specialist Dr. Bert Vargas gave when asked what he is most proud of his wife, Michele. In turn, she answered, “He’s amazing with his patients, fellows, residents, medical students, and even takes time to help high school students interested in medicine. He’s involved in so many things such as: board member of several organizations, on committees, running conferences, speaking engagements, and research studies. He is always traveling for work. Honestly, I have no idea how he accomplishes it all. He truly is a human version of the Energizer Bunny.”
Both are able to thrive in their endeavors because they operate as a team, each filling the gaps they see the other needs. Their union is quite remarkable.
Bert and Michele crossed paths at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, where Bert was in the headache fellowship program and Michele worked scheduling patient appointments for the neurology department. The two often worked together on several patient-related issues. They eventually became friends and over time their love sparked.
Michele was hesitant to reveal to Bert that she had migraine for fear of him not wanting to date someone living with a disease in his chosen field or thinking that she was only interested in him because of his job. Eventually, when Michele confessed she had chronic migraine disease, Bert didn’t back away. “My initial reaction was that I wished there was something I could do to help her,” says Bert. “I also remember being in awe at how much she was able to accomplish at work and in her home as a single mother despite the discomfort she was experiencing at all times.”
Michele was 15 when she experienced her first migraine attack. She currently has about three to six “break through” severe attacks a month that last one or two days. However, there is still a daily underlying migraine if she misses or is late in her essential oil prophylactic treatment, which puts her in the chronic migraine category. For her, a migraine attack “literally makes me wish I could chop the top half of my head off, drill a hole in my head, or bash my head on something to make it stop.”
In 1999, Michele’s migraine symptoms suddenly became 24/7 and incredibly disabling. Severe memory loss, extreme fatigue, impaired cognitive function, aphasia (trouble finding words), phonophobia, and photophobia were now an everyday occurrence. Physically unable to continue working under these circumstances, Michele applied for Social Security Disability. Yet she was denied due to lack of a proper diagnosis from her primary health care practitioner. It would be eight more years before she received a diagnosis and proper treatment from a neurologist.
In exploring treatment options, she continued to run into roadblocks. There were a number of FDA approved and off-label medications that I could not try due to insurance refusing to approve or pay for them. Sadly, this was even while working for a self-insured hospital. Some injections had requirements of failing numerous medications (also known as step-therapy or fail-first). She even flew to Europe where a new device was being trialed. She was able to successfully use this device as a “transition bridge” to get off of all daily pharmaceuticals to managing her headache with essential oils.
The power of complementary alternative methods
Michele lives a very disciplined, balanced life in order to manage her migraine attacks.
- Stay hydrated
- 8 hours of sleep
- Quiet surroundings
- Avoid direct sunlight
- Steer clear of synthetic scents and toxic chemicals
- Strict timing of her treatments
The most powerful tool Michele uses is essential oils. She had dabbled in essential oils since the late ‘80’s but now began extensively researching oil chemistry, safety, and factors impacting quality and strength.
When used prophylactically and at the onset of an attack, the use of oils can reduce or even alleviate Michele’s pain without having to use a triptan. However, she says there is a bit of trial and error to find what works for each person. She relates choosing oils to a person’s bio-preference in the way that each individual will feel a particular NSAID works better than another NSAID for their aches and pains.
Michele has taught aromatherapy in Europe and Northern America because so many people (even those without migraine) have synthetic scent and/or chemical triggers. “I have found most people with strong scent triggers do not have issues with 100% natural scents,” she shares. “Reducing the chemical load on the body helps the body function better with less effort.”
She is a member of NAHA (National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy),
AIA (Alliance of International Aromatherapists), and IAAMA (International Aromatherapy & Aromatic Medicine Association Inc.)
What does headache specialist Dr. Bert Vargas have to say about the use of essential oils? “It’s about individualized care.” Many doctors are hesitant to talk about complementary and alternative methods (CAM) because much of it is unregulated and some treatments, like acupuncture, are hard to study.
He emphasizes that as long as a treatment is safe and legal, it may be worthwhile to try after a discussion with ones doctor. Since patients are hesitant to discuss CAM for fear of being judged, Bert asks every patient if they use any alternative methods. He encourages people to be open and honest with their doctor about their use of CAM or their desire to explore them.
Bert, the doctor
Bert himself, does not have any form of headache disorder. As a resident, he found headache medicine the most rewarding. Just by taking the time to identify the proper diagnosis, he felt that proper treatment options were more easily identified, and he watched patients improve or find better ways to manage their disease.
“I am continually impressed and inspired by how well my patients manage their lives despite the disabling features of their headache disorders,” he says. “If I had to do it all over, I wouldn’t change a thing about my choice in specialty.”
Bert currently practices at UT Southwestern in Dallas. He also serves on the American Headache Society (AHS) board of directors and is involved in the post traumatic headache special interest group, membership committee, and the electronic media committee that hosts the annual Migraine Moment Short Film Contest. Dr. Vargas also serves on the Digital Strategy Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN).
The term “teleconcussion” is attributed to Bert, and refers to an innovative way to help evaluate and manage concussion in populations without immediate access to specialty care, such as rural areas. In partnership with the medical staff of Northern Arizona University Football, Bert and his colleagues researched the feasibility, accuracy, and safety of performing remote telemedical assessments of possible concussion at the time of injury. Teleconcussion proved to be an accurate and effective means of identifying individuals who should be removed from play for suspected concussion.
Stemming from his research on concussion, Bert has worked with the NFL for the past three seasons as an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant (UNC), attending games and evaluating players. Additionally, he worked with NASCAR to design, implement, and oversee a neurotrauma and concussion program in partnership with American Medical Response.
Bert, husband and caregiver
Bert does not treat Michele’s chronic migraine disease. He’s her sounding board in the moment of having a bad attack, but as her husband and caregiver. He defers to the doctor-patient relationship Michele has with her provider. Of course, he does get frustrated that he can’t make his wife’s pain magically disappear. “Like the numerous other people that I see as patients, I also hope that she experiences complete relief one day,” says Bert.
Bert and Michele, advocates
In 2007, Bert attended the first ever Headache on the Hill (HOH), the brainchild of Dr. Robert Shapiro. Twelve years later, Dr. Vargas is now the president of the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy, the non-profit that hosts HOH. Patients, caregivers, and doctors from around the country meet with their state’s representatives to advocate for more NIH research funding and address other unmet needs through legislation.
Michele has caught the advocacy bug, attending HOH for the first time in 2017. She serves on the Warrior Ad Board for Miles for Migraine and the Patient Leadership Council for the National Headache Foundation. She is the former Treasurer of the American Headache and Migraine Association. Together, Bert & Michele Vargas are making a daily difference in the migraine and headache community.
Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy: allianceforheadacheadvocacy.org
American Headache Society: americanheadachesociety.org
American Academy of Neurology: aan.com
Miles for Migraine: milesformigraine.org
National Headache Foundation: headaches.org