Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Less brain, more heart

The conditions described in these 2 recent stories give me the willies, although they really shouldn't:

Chase Britton, 3, Williamsville, New York
Chase was born prematurely and legally blind, but otherwise healthy. When he developed slowly during his 1st year, his parents suspected mild cerebral palsy, so Chase's doctor ordered an MRI. That's how they learned that the boy was missing his entire cerebellum (the part of the brain responsible for motor control, balance, coordination, emotional control, and language and learning) and his pons (the part of the brain stem that regulates basic functions like sleeping and breathing). Oddly enough, the structures seem to have disappeared, since they are visible in ultrasound pictures. Chase's doctors and caregivers are astounded. He has a vocabulary of about 60 words, he's potty training, and he seems to have an intuitive understanding of his new i-Pad. His older brother Alex says that he acts like a normal kid. His teacher Sharon Schultz reports, "I'm in awe of him everyday. Things that, based on that diagnosis, he should not be able to do, he is doing, I mean walking up and down the hall, riding a bike, holding a pencil or a pen to work on projects, using scissors." It's not clear yet if Chase will ever be able to live independently, but at the suggestion of his geneticist his parents are starting a college fund because, as his mother Heather says, "You never know."

Tyson Smith, 36, San Diego, California
Earlier this month, Tyson Smith received the transplant of a donor heart. The enlarged heart he had been born with led to congestive heart failure. Now he has 2 beating in his chest. This rare life-saving cardiac surgery, in which the patient's heart is not removed, makes him one of its pioneers and should give him another 10 years of life. Even though Mr. Smith was facing death, he could not have a standard heart transplant. Removing the old heart and replacing it with a new heart would have caused the new heart to fail, because resistance to flow in his lungs – called pulmonary hypertension – was so high. But together, the two hearts share the work and get the job done,” explained Michael Madani, co-director of UC San Diego's Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center. The operation, known as a heterotopic or "piggy-back" heart transplant, surgically connects the left atria (filling chambers) of the hearts.

In contrast to both Tyson's and Chase's story, a hemispherectomy disconnects the 2 halves of the brain, resolving other issues in ways the medical establishment doesn't fully understand. As miraculous as the surgery is, an empty head is even eerier than an overstuffed chest cavity.

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