Kids Have Strokes More Often Than Thought

Photo: Strokes in children more common than thought

By all accounts, Brendon Spear was a healthy newborn. But some subtly abnormal behavior made his mother, Jessica Spear, think twice.

"At two weeks, he couldn't turn his head to the right. At two months, he was clearly left-handed," Spear said. "He was walking at 13 months but was falling because he couldn't pick up his right foot. He would go in circles."

Spear, who lives in St. Louis, took Brendon for several examinations, and finally, when he was 19 months old, to a neurologist for a brain scan. She learned that Brendon had the neuromuscular disorder cerebral palsy -- due to a stroke he had suffered in the uterus.

"It was devastating because one, you never hear of stroke in children, and two, it took so long to get a diagnosis," Spear said.

"I thought, 'why the heck didn't someone tell me this long before now?' We would have had a diagnosis at six months and Brendon would not be denied the therapies he needed... I felt very isolated as a parent."

Stroke Is Rare But Does Occur in Kids

Although cases of pediatric stroke are rare, stroke occurs with two to four times more frequency in children and teenagers than was previously thought, according to a new study just published online in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Prior estimates for rates of childhood stroke were between 0.54 and 1.2 cases per 100,000 children in the U.S. But analysis of 2.3 million children's hospital records in California by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco showed the rate of childhood stroke to be 2.4 cases per 100,000 children.

Researchers felt the higher rate of pediatric stroke was due to improper coding or typing errors in medical records.

"The number of times someone has said to me, 'We didn't think it was a stroke because it was a child,' is legend," said Dr. Ian Butler, director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Neurology at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

Vinette Harris said doctors were surprised when her 15-year-old son Paul Meikle, an avid athlete who played football, basketball and ran track, landed in the emergency room this summer with slurred speech and a drooping left eye.

Stroke Can Strike Regardless of Age

"All the symptoms pointed to [stroke], even though he was young," Harris said. "The hospital didn't have a lot of experience in treatment options for children, so they offered us treatments they would give to adults. But they knew there was a risk."

Scans showed that Meikle, who also has an enlarged heart for which he has a pacemaker, had a blood clot lodged at the base of two veins on the right side of his brain, which was why his left eye was affected. He was treated with medications to break up the clot.

"After the medication... he felt he could move his arm -- which for me, it felt like watching my son walk again for the first time," Harris said. "That same evening, his mobility was completely restored... And now there are no physical remnants of the stroke."

Meikle made a full recovery. But children who suffer a stroke often live with the aftereffects for the rest of their lives. Such children are at increased risk for subsequent strokes as well as seizure disorders. In addition, developmental disorders, such as cerebral palsy, can impair their cognitive abilities and their motor function, requiring a lifetime of physical, occupational, or speech therapy.

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