Trades Piece of Her Brain for End to Seizures

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The process of putting electrodes deep into MacDonald's brain began with drilling holes into her skull.

"This is the entry point above the left ear, to track the trajectory down to get to the hippocampus," Bailes said. "The electrode is now being placed through the guide."

Wires to transmit her brain wave information were then cemented to MacDonald's skull to prevent them from moving or being pulled out.

With the wires securely attached to her brain, MacDonald was moved to the Epilepsy Monitoring Center and kept under surveillance for two weeks. During that time, she suffered several seizures.

"This is the head turning, head jerking," Dr. Adriana Palade told WVU's Epilepsy Team as they watched monitors recording MacDonald's her brain activity and assessing her seizures in real time to determine precisely where they're coming from in the brain.

After two weeks of monitoring, the medical team had enough information to recommend surgery to remove a part of MacDonald's brain suspected of triggering the seizures. The damage was tracked not to the hippocampus but to the amygdale, the part of the brain largely responsible for controlling emotions.

"Here we're right at the temporal lobe, and here if you see this right here this shouldn't be there. We think that seizures may come from here and it's the portions of the brain that will come out and leaving the hippocampus where the memory stays will be left behind," Palade explained.

Surgery Threatens Memory Loss, Inability to Speak

"It's not going to affect my memory?" asked a shaken MacDonald.

"No, no," assured Palade.

Bailes said MacDonald would be able to function without her amygdale on the left side of her brain because it was simply not working properly. A functioning amygdale is the seat of spirituality and symbolism.

"Amazingly, the human brain has redundancy, and we endeavor not to take out the part that's critical for those functions," said Dr. Bailes. "It's never fun in a way to take out a part of the brain, but in epilepsy, we think there are some parts that aren't working right, and parts that are generating the seizure. So, that part needs to go!" Still, Bailes said, no surgery is considered risk-free.

"It's a very high stakes place, the dominant temporal lobe, where your speech and language is located," said Bailes. "If you can't speak or understand, for most people, life is not worth living."

On the day of her surgery, MacDonald said she was looking forward to a life uninterrupted by epilepsy.

"Maybe I will be able to get my life back," MacDonald said. "They say it's not going to affect my memory, if it was going to affect my memory, I wouldn't do it. I have my baby to worry about. She's my top priority."

MacDonald was wheeled into the operating room and surgery preparations began as planned but the doctors suddenly encountered a snag. A large vein that supplies blood to the entire left side of MacDonald's brain was in the way, lying in the exact spot where Bailes planned to cut.

"This is going to be hard. The vein should be further posterior shouldn't it?" Bailes asked his colleagues. "I mean look at it…"

"I don't think you can take it," another doctor agreed.

"This vein.. if taken by the surgeon, or injured by a surgeon… could have perhaps led her to be unable to speak again, or unable to understand the spoken or written word," Bailes said. "We're limited I think by this big vein which may control her speech. I don't feel comfortable taking that vein."

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