Doctors Remove Part of Cheerleader's Brain to Stop Seizures

PHOTO: Whitney Henry, seen here, had a part of her brain removed to stop seizures that she was having 30 to 50 times a day.PlayABC News
WATCH Cheering Accident Leads to Seizures

It was a stunt that happened before her junior year of high school that Whitney Henry would never forget.

Henry and her cheerleading teammates were practicing a stunt that involved tossing one girl, the flyer, into the air. The routine quickly went awry when the flyer jumped out of the stunt, slamming her head into Henry's face. Henry's two front teeth were knocked out.

While the dental debacle was damaging to her smile, Henry would only learn later how much of an impact this accident would have on her life, and that it would eventually lead surgeons to remove a chunk of her brain.

Henry suffered her first episode six months after the accident. She recalled that she could not speak for about two minutes and experienced intense déjà vu.

"I didn't know if I was just different or if I was having a seizure or what," said the now 20-year-old Henry.

It turned out that it was a seizure and after the first episode, the seizures became more intense and frequent. She experienced 30 to 50 per day. And as a junior in high school, Henry would often have seizures while in school.

Frustrations at Every Turn

The frustrations continued when Henry sought medical help for her mysterious condition. She went through six neurologists and 13 anticonvulsant medications without any improvement.

"It was maddening," said Henry. "I had no quality of life at all."

Despite being an active child and teenager, Henry could no longer exercise because workouts and an accelerated heart rate triggered even more seizures.

Between the anti-seizure medications that caused weight gain and the lack of exercise, Henry gained 45 pounds in a few months.

"I looked awful and I felt awful and I had no self-esteem," she said.

One neurologist left a particular memory after he gave her a new medication and discouraged her from surgery.

"He told me, 'I don't think you need an ice cream scooper taken to your brain,'" recalled Henry.

Symptoms of Seizures

While Henry never convulsed during her seizures, she became paralyzed during the episodes and could become extremely paranoid, lose her ability to speak and sometimes even euphoric afterwards. Henry often woke up in the middle of the night after suffering a seizure, convinced that people were in her room.

"Usually I would need someone to calm me down because I would get so paranoid and so shaken up," said Henry. "And if I had a cluster of seizures, four or five back to back, I'd have a sense of euphoria."

During her euphoric states, Henry said she'd become giggly, while her eyes would become large and glassed over. "One time I was sent me home from school because I was considered a distraction to the classroom," said Henry. "They thought I was high."

Between debilitating seizures, and the memory loss and paranoia that came along with the regular episodes, Henry's grades plummeted her junior year.

Seizures Seize Quality of Life

"I was a 4.0 student before the accident, and I graduated high school with a 2.9," said Henry. "I've had to re-learn how to learn. I used to go listen to teachers and not even have to take notes or study for the test, and now I have to study study study."

Because high school suddenly proved to be so difficult, Henry doubled up on her classes and actually graduated one year early because of the condition.

"I knew that staying there another year was not feasible," she said.

But after one and a half years of attacks, Dr. Michael Handler, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children's Hospital in Denver, Colo., finally pinpointed the cheerleading accident as the cause of her condition and suggested surgery to treat it.

Surgery: A Seizure's Last Resort?

"This is not a step we take lightly," Handler told ABC News affiliate, ABC7 in Denver. "It's a step that's hard for some doctors to accept and some patients to accept."

The accident caused a traumatic brain injury that, instead of a concussion, caused a contusion, a big bruise on the brain that caused permanent damage. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, epilepsy and seizures affect almost 3 million Americans, and about 300,000 of those affected have difficulty controlling seizures despite medical management.

"Medications are the first line of treatment," said Dr. Brian Greenwald, medical director of Brain Injury Rehabilitation at Mount Sinai Hospital. "With one or two medications, most people [about 80 percent] can get control of their seizures."

Henry Has Brain Surgery

"This injury occurs when [the temporal lobe] slides up against the bony projections that form the base of the skull cavity," said Dr. Gregory O'Shanick, medical director emeritus of the Brain Injury Association of America. "This follows either a direct blow to the head or an acceleration-deceleration of the head that then causes the brain to shift in the skull."

After surgery became an option on the table for Henry's condition, she did not hesitate for even a moment. "My reaction was, 'Can we do it tomorrow?'" said Henry. "I was relieved and anxious to get through surgery and have a new life."

Doctors conducted four week-long studies on Henry before she went into surgery, where doctors removed a golf ball size portion of Henry's temporal lobe.

Dr. Atif Haque, a neurosurgeon at the Fort Worth Brain and Spine Institute, said that most people get brain surgery because of the interference that seizures have on their lives.

Brain Surgery and Inherent Risks

But brain surgery certainly doesn't come without risks.

"Risks depend on the area of the brain operated on," said Haque. "In the temporal lobe, risks include memory or behavioral disturbances or visual deficits. Risks anywhere in the brain include things like bleeding, infection or stroke."

While some doctors feel that surgery should be a last result for seizure patients, many do not think this should be the case.

"Although there are risks with any surgery, especially brain surgery, those risks are outweighed by the benefit of improving seizure control, and regaining control of one's life," said Dr. Shenandoah Robinson, director of pediatric epilepsy surgery at University Hospitals of Cleveland. "Sometimes the area of brain both produces seizures and controls important functions, but often the only thing that area of the brain is doing is causing seizures."

And Dr. Adam Mamelak, an attending neurosurgeon at the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute at Cedar Sinai Medical Center, agreed that surgeries should be a valid option upfront.

"In general, surgery is often viewed as a last resort, although this probably should not be the case due to its efficacy and safety," said Mamelak. "In this case, the injury seemed very localized, so surgery was a great option."

Mamalek also noted that patients with other brain disease such as tumors or infections can also develop intractable seizures. For those patients, surgery can also be extremely effective and is often a first-line therapy.

Henry did not suffer any vision or memory loss as a result of the surgery, but she has had to make some compromises.

Many people who have right-sided brain surgery have compromised immune systems, so Henry gets sick easily and quicker than most people. Because of this, she has lived at home, away from the dorms, during her time in undergraduate college. She also must steer clear of high-impact exercises. The slightest bump can cause concussions, so she sticks to low impact workouts like yoga.

Henry has now been seizure free for two years and four months. She is a senior at University of Northern Colorado, and plans on getting her master's degree and Ph.D. in psychology.

"I guess that part of my brain was holding me back," said Henry. "I'm excited to have a fresh start."