What happens when doctors remove half of a child's brain?

Imagine having to choose: Watch your child to suffer through endless, intense seizures -- or let surgeons remove half her brain.

That's what the Verdecchia family of Portland, Oregon, faced. Their 2-year-old daughter, Katie, had been diagnosed with Aicardi Syndrome when she was about a month old. "She had no Corpus Collosum, seizures, enlarged ventricles, abnormal brain formation, and cysts in her brain where matter should be," her mom wrote on her blog, Katie's Conquest. "We took the news surprisingly well."

By July, her seizures were getting more varied and more intense, and by September, things had gotten even worse. "For 24 hours straight, the right side of her brain was firing in silent seizures," her mother wrote. Katie's neurologist was concerned that the constant seizures on the right side of her brain would lead to seizure activity on the left side as well; she already didn't use the left side of her body much -- it's controlled by the right side of the brain -- and didn't respond to touch. A slew of different medications didn't bring the seizures under control. It was time to consider a radical approach, and the Verdecchias had to choose.

Just before Thanksgiving, surgeons at the University of California Medical Center performed a hemispherectomy on Katie, removing the right side of the toddler's brain. (The above photo, from myfoxla.com, was taken soon after the surgery.)

Unlike a lobotomy, in which the connection to and from the prefrontal cortex is severed to control certain psychotic symptoms, a hemispherectomy is used to control severe epileptic seizures, usually by disconnecting the two halves of the brain, sometimes by removing one half altogether. The complicated brain surgery is relatively rare, but is usually performed on children because their brains are much more adaptable than adults'.

Author Jennifer Lawler's daughter, Jessica, who was born with "a massively deformed brain," had the left side of her brain resected when she was 9 months old. In a powerful post called "For Jessica," Lawler wrote about the surgery, redefining happiness, and the challenges her now-13-year-old daughter faces:
"So you do the best you can. You raise your daughter, and she is three years old before she learns to walk, seven years old before she learns to use a toilet, and mothers all around you are blathering their worry that their babies aren't talking by twelve months, and you don't even know what universe they live in, because in your universe, you had surgeons take out the left side of your daughter's brain and throw it away. ...

A long time ago you stopped raging at the universe for doing this to your daughter, and years before she was born, you stopped believing in a benevolent god, but right now you would like to hurl some curses at a supremely powerful being, to have the satisfaction of getting an answer back. You would take on Satan and ten men, but no one asks you do to that. No one has ever asked you to do that.

They asked you to do this instead, this infinitely harder thing. ..."
The surgery, which was intended to control the hundreds of seizures Jessica was having every day, didn't stop them completely. But while some people may see "a slow-moving, cognitively-impaired kid who can't be budged once she makes up her mind," her mother described "a high-spirited, ebullient girl with a stubborn streak."

It's too early to tell how well the surgery worked for Katie. She's still in recovery, and she's suffered a few setbacks, which her parents write about on their journal at Caringbridge.org. She may lose some of her motor skills. She may still have seizures. Or, as with Brooklyn Bauer, who had a hemispherectomy in 2006 and went on to thrive in kindergarten, the toughest decision her parents had to face may be the best thing that ever happened to her.

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