Girl Functions After Half of Brain Removed

ByABC News via logo
July 11, 2002, 8:42 PM

July 12 -- Fifteen-year-old Christina Santhouse is a smart and athletic teen, an *NSYNC fan who frequently chats on her cell phone and boasts a 94.7 GPA. What makes Christina unique is that she does it all on half a brain.

She told her story in the magazine Rosie and shared it with Good Morning America.

The nightmare began seven years ago, with strange symptoms that came out of nowhere. Christina, 8 at the time, was on what should have been a wonderful occasion: a family beach vacation on the New Jersey shore.

During the trip, Christina's foot began shaking uncontrollably, so her family rushed her to the hospital. Puzzled doctors made a hasty referral to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. After three days of torturous tests, they figured out what the problem was and it wasn't good news.

Doctors diagnosed Christina with Rasmussen's encephalitis, a rare autoimmune disease, usually found in children, in which the body attacks the brain, killing off cells. There are fewer than 1,000 cases in the United States.

Cure Worse than Disease

Treating the seizures sounded worse than the disease. Doctors said she would have to get a hemispherectomy, a procedure in which the diseased half of the brain is surgically removed. In short, Christina would be left with half a brain.

Christina's divorced mom couldn't believe what she was hearing. To her, it sounded like the lobotomies of the 1930s. She worried that the surgical procedure would rob her daughter of her personality, if not her memory. Plus, she knew for sure that the removal of the right side of her brain would leave Christina with physical limits in her left arm and left leg, and the loss of left peripheral vision in both eyes.

"I was devastated," Lynne Santhouse-Catarro said. "I'd never heard of anything so barbaric."

Doctors said that Christina could go through some trial and error with different treatments chemotherapy or steroids but that those would just stop the virus for a while.