Trades Piece of Her Brain for End to Seizures

Photo: Trades Piece of Mind For End to Seizures: Single Mom Risks Memory Loss, Speech Problems

Holes drilled in her head, wires inserted into her brain, the single mother got the good news: the abnormalities in certain areas of her brain had been pinpointed and, if surgically removed, might end her increasingly frequent seizures.

But there were enormous risks -- potential damage to her memory, other critical functions, even the possibility she could be "cured" for a brief time by surgery, only to have the problem surface in another part of the brain and her seizures resume.

Watch the full story tonight on "Secrets of Your Mind" at 10 p.m. ET

Secrets of Your Mind
Secrets of Your Mind

Then Kristy MacDonald, 30, thought about her 6-year-old daughter, Mychaela. Now that MacDonald was incapacitated by her seizures more frequently, the young child was more often in the role of caring for her mother than a child should be. The high-stakes gamble was worth it.

"God, I'm scared," MacDonald said before undergoing the surgery she desperately hoped would correct the problem without the troubling complications.

Three years ago, MacDonald, a medical secretary from Barton, Md., suddenly began suffering epileptic seizures. They were frightening to family members who witnessed them, including MacDonald's aunt, Karen Bothwell, and her mother, Peggy Spataro.

"Her head would just turn, I mean almost like 'The Exorcist,' I mean really, it was just really that scary," Bothwell said.

Despite a daily regimen of medication to treat them, MacDonald's seizures were becoming more frequent and she was suffering as many as two a week. While her family kept an eye on her at all times, young Mychaela was most closely affected.

"Right now, life is Hell," MacDonald said. "This is my baby. She's 6 years old. And she's always watching out for Mommy."

Hoping for a better life, MacDonald turned to the West Virginia University Health Sciences Center in Morgantown, W.Va.

Dr. Julian Bailes, chief of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, has been operating on brains for more than two decades. He told MacDonald he needed to explore what was going on inside her brain to decide how to correct the mental misfires that might be causing the seizures. The plan was to drill holes in her skull, threading electrodes through them and into the hippocampus, the part of the brain that houses memory. Doctors planned to later monitor her 24 hours a day at WVU's Epilepsy Monitoring Unit until MacDonald had enough seizures to give them the information they needed to decide the best next step for treatment.

Wires Inserted In Brain, Mom Is Monitored During Seizures

"The brain's in this closed box - the skull. We've got to penetrate it," said Bailes, who estimates he's performed thousands of brain surgeries over the years but still finds the work fascinating. "I'm going in for deep brain information."

For MacDonald, the thought of having her skull drilled and her brain probed in anticipation that damaged parts can be removed was as frightening as the cure was promising.

"Any surgery is nerve-wracking, but when it comes to your head and putting little holes in my head, into my brain, that's scary," MacDonald said. Still she was hopeful that the drastic measure would help her regain control of a life taken over by epilepsy.

Her family, meanwhile, prepared for the possibility that a seizure-free MacDonald may not be the same loved one they know. Dr. Bailes was concerned that epilepsy surgery on MacDonald would come with a major risk: MacDonald could lose her memory.

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