‘Little Angel’s’ miraculous recovery

Doctors remove half of toddler’s brain to save her

by Erin Odom

Three-year-old Katie Bradley holds herself up on a rail after a surgery to fix a brain defect in November at Duke Children’s Hospital and Health Center required doctors to remove the left lobe of her brain.

HUNTERSVILLE – Like many girls her age, Katie Bradley laughs a lot. The 3- year-old enjoys playing in her toy kitchen and watching races with her daddy. And she and she loves the vacuum almost as much as she loves her favorite blanket.

In many ways, Katie is an ordinary girl, but the 3-year-old recently survived the extraordinary: In a drastic, life-saving measure, doctors removed half of Katie’s brain.

Something’s wrong

Billy Bradley was watching TV in his Huntersville living room in September 2009 when he heard Katie scream. He thought his daughter was having a nightmare, but quickly he realized something wasn’t right.

He rushed to her bedside. Katie was shaking and mumbling, and her eyes had glazed over. Billy and his wife, Barbara, decided to take their baby to the hospital, but by the time the family arrived, Katie’s seizure had stopped.

Little did they know that Katie had been born with a brain disorder, and this would be the start of countless hospital visits over the next year and a half.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Barbara said.

The MRI tells the tale

The Bradley family first learned that something wasn’t right was at Katie’s 18-month check-up in the summer of 2009. Doctors noticed she wasn’t developing on pace with other children. Billy and Barbara Bradley who also have a 5-year-old son, Nathan, had noticed Katie’s slower development but thought all kids progress differently.

“You have your first child and are paranoid about every little thing, and the second comes along and you don’t stress as much,” Barbara said.

The couple started early intervention therapy with their daughter and sought out a neurologist.

It only took one MRI to see what had was wrong: The left side of her brain was larger than the right.

“You … feel like you are having an out- of-body experience,” Barbara wrote on Katie’s Caring Bridge site, a website that allows family members to connect with and update other family members and friends during difficult times. “You are hearing (the doctor) and staring at your beautiful little girl thinking this just can’t be happening.”

Doctors confirmed that Katie was born with Hemimegalencephaly, a rare neurological condition where one side of the brain is abnormally larger than the other. The enlarged brain tissue causes frequent seizures and leads to mental delays. Doctors aren’t sure what causes it.

“This condition happens as the baby is forming,” Barbara said. “If I had had my ultrasound a few weeks later, it could have been picked up prior to birth. Thankfully, we didn’t know. I would have been a nervous wreck waiting for something to happen.”

Doctors put Katie on medications to help control her seizures, while the Bradleys considered the possibility of brain surgery for their daughter. Since Katie was unable to talk, Barbara began learning and teaching her sign language.

“She really, really thrived with that,” Barbara said. “It gave her a voice.”

Since most of Katie’s seizures occurred while she was sleeping, Billy and Barbara took turns manning a video monitor.

“I guess you get used to less rest and just do what needs to be done,” Billy said. “It has certainly changed our lives, our focus and our goals, but I believe it is for the better. You can either dwell on wishing things were different, or accept the gifts God gives you, embrace them, and make the most of what you have.”

Surgery for salvation

This past fall, Katie started slowly going off some of her medications in order to prepare for surgery, where doctors would literally disconnect the entire left side of her brain, with hopes that the right side would eventually take on all the responsibilities of the left.

Katie’s surgery was scheduled for December 14. By mid-November, however, the seizures became so frequent her doctors decided to operate on Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving.

“Not making it through surgery was always a concern,” Barbara said. “There are children that don’t make it through, but we were at the point that if they didn’t do anything the seizures could have killed her.

“You feel like you’re signing your kid’s life away, but you don’t feel like you have another choice,” she continued. “I was told it would be the most frightening and hopeful day of my life.”

The Bradleys said their faith in God and their church family at Huntersville United Methodist strengthened them as they waited for word from the operating room.

“Something like this will certainly test your faith, but I’ve learned you can’t live in fear,” Barbara said. “It would have ruined her past year of life if we had worried and fretted over it. You can’t live like that.”

Katie’s surgery lasted five and a half hours, and, when her parents met her in the recovery room, the three year old waved and signed “mommy.”

Barbara had been unsure whether Katie would remember the signs since the left side of the brain is responsible for language.

“Just a couple hours after surgery, and the right side of the brain was already taking over,” Barbara said.

An angel’s smile

The Bradleys don’t know how long it will take for the right side of Katie’s brain to compensate for the left or what life will look like for Katie in the future. Many people who have this surgery go on to lead normal lives as the other side of the brain compensates for the loss.

For now, Katie will continue taking precautionary seizure medications and receive private therapy.

And her family is thankful to have her.

“Katie is our little angel,” Billy said. “To see her smile and get excited about something … to hear her laugh … well, there’s pretty much nothing better.”

Visit Katie’s Caring Bridge site at www.caringbridge.org/visit/kathrynbradley or contact the family at P.O. Box 2281, Huntersville, N.C. 28070.

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