Thriving on Half a Brain

The girl with half a brain. That's how people have always described Brandi Binder. She doesn't really mind, because it's the truth.

She's 22, and she knows she's lucky to be alive. When she was 4, she somehow contracted a rare and extreme form of epilepsy that, by all accounts, should have killed her.

Her medical condition could have been something out of a Hollywood script. … And, in fact, it became one in an episode of "Grey's Anatomy."

Like Brandi, the fictional little girl in "Grey's Anatomy" has a condition called Rasmussen's encephalitis. Essentially, half of the brain is healthy and functions normally. The other half is dead or dying.

Brandi and her family watched the "Grey's Anatomy" episode depicting the rare condition.

"Seeing that family get that diagnosis just reminded me of when we stood before our neurologist, and we got that diagnosis," said Binder's mom, Cindy Binder.

Cindy and her husband, Steven Binder, were devastated when they heard the news, and they said watching the fictional account of their daughter's condition brought back all of the initial feelings.

"It's just as fresh watching that as the day it happened. It doesn't matter that it's been 16, 18 years since that happened to us. To see it portrayed like that was very emotional," Cindy said.

A Treatment as Daunting as the Diagnosis

"20/20" first reported on Brandi Binder and her family in 1997. When she was born, the family thought it had a normal, healthy baby. Then came the eye twitching, teeth grinding, drooling and powerful seizures. Binder was having up to 200 seizures a day.

They went to doctors around the country. Finally, one doctor at UCLA got it right and diagnosed her with Rasmussen's encephalitis. It usually affects just one side of the brain -- in this case, Binder's right side.

With the diagnosis came an agonizing decision for her parents. Treatment for the condition was the removal of half of the brain. If they didn't operate, Binder would die, doctors said. Operate, and she would be paralyzed along her left side, which the right brain controls.

They had no idea whether Binder would ever walk again, no idea how, or whether, the rest of her brain -- the left side -- would fully develop. They didn't know whether she'd ever be creative or solve problems, because that part of her brain would be removed.

Recovery would not be easy, but the Binders took one doctor's advice to heart: Challenge their daughter, every day, all the time.

They did, and it paid off. Months after her surgery, Binder started walking again. Even more remarkable, her young brain was able to make new connections -- allowing the left side to take over the functions from the missing right side. Slowly but surely, she began catching up at school.

Binder was 13 when "20/20" first met her. Like other kids, she dreamed back then of a bright future and even an independent life.

Today, nine years later, she still lives with her family, including her younger sister, Ginger. She likely always will. She remains paralyzed on her left side, her vision is impaired, and she's very much aware that people see her differently.

Binder, though, remains as strong and determined as she was during her teens. "I just go on living my life like anybody else, you know, 'cause we all have disabilities in some way. I try the best I can do, despite my limitations," she said.

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PHOTO: Jodie Foster and Alexandra Hedison attend the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Inaugural Gala presented by Salvatore Ferragamo at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Oct. 17, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
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