Navigating an epilepsy diagnosis and surgery: Geni’s story

Life was proceeding right on schedule for self-described “drama kid” Genevieve Masson. The 16-year-old, who goes by “Geni,” went to class, hung out with friends and spent time rehearsing musical theater at her high school.

“It was really a normal, not-so-exciting life,” she says.

school photo before epilepsy diagnosis
Life looked typical for Geni, pictured here in her eighth grade photo, before her first seizure.

But two years ago, when Geni was 14, something changed. A small lesion that had been in her brain since birth began making itself known. One night, she woke up and couldn’t move. She figured she was caught in a moment of sleep paralysis and didn’t give it too much thought.

Things quickly turned far more serious. A few days later, Geni was feeling tired at school and decided to take a nap in her coach’s office. That’s when she had her first full-on seizure.

Geni has no memory of what happened next, but those around her became alarmed as her body shook uncontrollably. A teacher called 911 and the next thing Geni knew, she was in an emergency room.

An MRI revealed nothing, as did visits to pediatricians. But not only did the seizures continue, they were occurring more often. The more severe ones occurred at night, while less noticeable ones were happening many times a day. Ultimately, she was diagnosed with epilepsy, but she wasn’t receiving the expert care she needed at nearby hospitals.

“I remember the day she had her first seizure. It was December 18,” says Susan Masson, Geni’s mom. “By that January, there were a couple more. It got to be about 15 to 20 a day. We knew we needed to be at CHOC. We needed to be at a place where we could be with an epileptologist.”

The Massons felt lucky to live fairly close to CHOC, home to one of the nation’s premier epilepsy centers for young people. CHOC’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Program was the first in California to be named a Level 4 epilepsy center by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers, the highest level available. That distinction means that CHOC has the professional expertise and facilities to provide the highest level medical and surgical evaluation and treatment for patients with complex epilepsy.

It was at CHOC that the Massons met Dr. Maija-Riikka Steenari. A pediatric neurologist, Dr. Steenari is an epilepsy specialist, also known as an epileptologist.

dr-maija-steenari-epileptologist-choc
Dr. Maija Steenari, pediatric epileptologist at CHOC

“It’s a fascinating field,” Dr. Steenari says of pediatric neurology and epilepsy. “The combination of working with brains and kids together is the best fit for me.”

What exactly is epilepsy? Basically, parts of the brain go haywire and emit unwanted electrical signals that can cause convulsions and seizures of varying strength. As Dr. Steenari describes it, it’s “a clump of brain cells that don’t quite work the way they’re supposed to, or a cluster of cells in the wrong place. They’re really irritable. They’re known to cause trouble.”

Epilepsy can be the result of brain injury, stroke or, in Geni’s case, a slight anomaly that was present since birth.

November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month, a time to remind people that epilepsy is both fairly common — nearly 25% of the population will experience recurring seizures in their lifetime — and it’s often treatable.

Like others diagnosed with epilepsy, Geni’s first option was medication. She was prescribed anti-seizure medicines, but they didn’t work.

Geni undergoes EEG monitoring at CHOC
Geni underwent EEG monitoring at CHOC to measure electrical activity in her brain.

“Medication works about 60 to 70% of the time,” Dr. Steenari says. “But adding more medications doesn’t always work. A second medication only works about 10% of the time. So, can we do something else to help them with their seizures? That’s where surgery comes into play.”

Having seizures meant that Geni was missing a lot of school, would not be able to drive and couldn’t be left alone. But her family and friends rose to the occasion and helped when they could. And Geni did her best to be a regular teenager.

“I was trying to lead a normal life,” she says. “I would still go to rehearsals.”

Geni needed two surgeries, the first one to determine exactly where the problem was. Dr. Joffre Olaya was her pediatric neurosurgeon.

Geni’s hospital room before epilepsy surgery
When Geni spent time at CHOC, her friends made special decorations for her room to show their support and cheer her up.

“We have these grids that we can put on the surface of the brain,” Dr. Steenari says. “We can map where the seizures are coming from within a few millimeters. We could make a very detailed map.”

The lesion was right next to the part of Geni’s brain that controls language. If her surgeon didn’t have an exact spot to operate, she could lose the ability to speak or write. But Geni was willing to take the risk. Each seizure could cause more damage to her brain and Geni wanted them to stop.

“The doctor said each seizure would do damage to my brain,” Geni said. “I don’t like having constant damage to my brain done. If surgery can take me back to where I can’t write or speak well, I was willing to take the chance.”

Geni prepares for surgery
Geni was all smiles leading up to her second epilepsy surgery.

The second surgery came a few weeks later. Doctors successfully removed the lesion, but Geni faced a number of challenges after surgery that her family was told ahead of time were possibilities. Geni lost automatic movement of her right hand, so she couldn’t do with her right hand what other people do without thinking about it. She was 15 at the time, so before surgery, she had long ago mastered writing without thinking about how to shape each letter. After surgery, she knew how letters should look, but she couldn’t make them. She also couldn’t tie her shoes, brush her hair or teeth, button or zip her clothes, or feed herself.  But Geni and her family treated these more like challenges than setbacks, and occupational therapy helped.

welcome home signs epilepsy surgery
To welcome Geni home after epilepsy surgery, her siblings decorated her bedroom.

“A few weeks after surgery, we went to the library and we got some preschool books on how to write. It was quite frustrating, but luckily, my brain still knew how to do it. It just needed to create new pathways. As soon as I did it, it got easier,” Geni says.

workbooks to help regain skills after epilepsy surgery
Preschool workbooks helped Geni re-master writing after epilepsy surgery.

Talking was hard after surgery, too. Geni would know what she wanted to say, but finding the right words took a little more time than it used to.

“Surgery had knocked over her file cabinet of words,” Susan explains of her daughter’s struggles post-surgery, which got better with speech therapy.

Geni’s family was with her every step of the way. It was heart-wrenching for her parents to see their daughter suffer, but they’re proud of how she handled her journey.

“I cry every time I remember how hard this was, and then I laugh at how much Geni thought it was simply annoying what she had to relearn. These kids are fearless little warriors,” Susan says of her daughter. “She’s a bubbly, vibrant, friendly girl. People love her. I don’t think it ever occurred to her that there was another way to manage through this. The limitations of life when you’re living with epilepsy can be staggering, but we didn’t have time to realize them. As soon as it came up, it ended. We got hit by a Mack truck and then it ended.”

Geni and family in 2019 before surgery
Geni and her family on vacation in 2019 before her epilepsy surgery.

Today, Geni has been seizure-free for 14 months. And while her right arm tires easily and she still sometimes has trouble finding the right words to say, someone meeting her for the first time wouldn’t notice.

Geni back on stage after epilepsy surgery
Geni was back on stage a few months after epilepsy surgery.

“I have my driver’s permit and I’m learning how to drive,” Geni says. “That’s where I am right now. I’m working on a project for my film class and also an online play “Clue.”

Geni should continue to improve with time.

“She’s made remarkable recovery,” Dr. Steenari says. “She’ll continue to get better. If we had let those seizures continue, she would have ended up being much worse in the future.”

Learn more about the CHOC Epilepsy Program

Related posts:

Wired for hope

Every morning when she awakes, Sydney Amato begins her daily battle with her body.

If she’s lucky, the 16-year-old will have gotten a handful of hours of uninterrupted sleep – dreaming, perhaps, of doing what most healthy kids her age take for granted:

Hanging out with friends. Going to school. Learning to drive.

Because of a neurological condition called dystonia, Sydney, who is in excellent cognitive health but speaks and walks with some difficulty, suffers from involuntary and near-constant contraction of muscles in her neck, arms, legs and trunk.

Her mind is unable to control the painful jerking that makes most of her body twist and go rigid, her muscles moving out of normal sequence.

Born a right-hander, she can feed herself with some struggle using her left hand. She wants to dress and put on makeup herself, but those normally simple tasks become lengthy ordeals.

“My body fights me all the time,” says Sydney, trying to distract herself in her hospital bed one morning by watching an old episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Listening to her favorite music – Ariana Grande, Lauren Daigle, Drake – can only temporarily transport Sydney away from her debilitating condition.

“She knows what she wants to do,” says her father, Louis. “But her body won’t let her.”

Specialists at CHOC are working hard to change that.

CHOC patient and her father
Sydney, pictured with her father.

A first for CHOC

Recently, a team led by Dr. Terence Sanger, a physician, engineer and computational neuroscientist who joined CHOC in January 2020 as its vice president of research and first chief scientific officer, and Dr. Joffre E. Olaya, CHOC’s functional restorative neurosurgeon, implanted several temporary electrodes into Sydney’s brain. Collaborating with CHOC physicians was CHLA neurosurgeon Dr. Mark Liker.

Dr. Terrence Sanger, chief scientist at CHOC Children's

The surgery marked the first time a patient with a movement disorder at CHOC underwent a procedure called deep brain stimulation (DBS).

Working in perfect harmony as a team, Dr. Sanger and Dr. Olaya oversaw the first portion of a three-stage surgery on Sydney. As the surgeon, Dr. Olaya placed the leads following advice from Dr. Sanger, the neurologist, on where they should go.

 In the procedure, millimeter-thick electrodes were precisely positioned into the basal ganglia region of Sydney’s brain – about 3 inches deep. The surgery involved the use of the ROSA robot, the same tool that has been used during brain surgery on epilepsy patients at CHOC since 2015.

Considered one of the most advanced robotized surgical assistants, ROSA — which stands for robotic operating surgical assistant — includes a computer system and a robotic arm. It’s a minimally invasive surgical tool that improves accuracy and significantly reduces both surgery and anesthesia time.

The ROSA robot helped with implanting and targeting the electrodes and a portable operating-room CT scanner confirmed their position.

Turning down the volume

 DBS is designed to ease Sydney’s condition by sending electrical currents to jam her malfunctioning brain signals.

Think of turning down the volume on your car radio.

“Nobody really understands the cause of dystonia,” Dr. Sanger explains, “but there’s probably too much electrical stimulation going on in the motor areas of the brain. We’re trying to calm down that extra noise.”

Although DBS dates to the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the modern era of using it to treat adult patients with tremor and Parkinson’s disease began.

In 2000, Dr. Sanger, working with engineers, data scientists, neurosurgeons and others, began implanting electrodes in pediatric patients.

Instead of the established method of placing the leads at predetermined sites and hoping they worked, Sanger and his team, just as they did in Sydney’s case, placed temporary leads to best assess where they should go permanently based on patient response.

In 2016, Dr. Sanger began honing DBS to treat children with dystonia. Before the surgery on Sydney, Dr. Sanger had overseen DBS on 26 children using the same three-stage technique. He says 80% of those children have seen successful results.

Early signs

Sydney began showing symptoms of dystonia – tremors in her hands – when she was 5 ½ years old.

A year later, she was using a wheelchair. She had her first brain surgery at age 7.

Since then, “she’s been all over the U.S.” seeking the right treatment for her condition after several setbacks, her father says.

But her condition was not improving.

Early this year, a neurologist in Kansas City, Missouri, recommended that Sydney see Dr. Sanger.

“I asked him, ‘If Sydney was your kid, where would you go?’” Louis Amato recalls. “He said, ‘Hands down, Dr. Sanger.’”

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed Sydney’s surgery to mid-August.

Sydney already had two electrodes in her brain that were only partially working when she came to CHOC in early August for surgery.

After two extensive run-throughs with their team, Dr. Sanger and Dr. Olaya, in a six-hour procedure that at one point required nearly 20 people in the operating room, implanted more electrodes to give Sydney a total of nine.

Dr. Joffre Olaya, a pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC Children's
Dr. Joffre Olaya

After surgery, optimism

On Thursday, Aug. 20, six days after Sydney’s surgery, Dr. Sanger stopped by her room at CHOC Hospital. The room was decorated in purple, Sydney’s favorite color.

Dr. Sanger greeted her as CHOC staff members, joined by members of Sanger Lab, Dr. Sanger’s research laboratory that conducts research in pediatric movement disorders, prepared to have Sydney walk back and forth down a hallway while connected to electrical equipment programmed to record signals in her brain and muscles.

A thick coil of multicolored wires snaked from under a large white bandage covering Sydney’s head. Extending about 6 feet, the wires were plugged into specialized recording equipment controlled by Jennifer MacLean, a CHOC pediatric nurse practitioner whose job was to manipulate the strength of electrical charges affecting the four points of contact on each electrode.

The goal: determine which charges worked best and on which electrodes.

“It could have turned out that the DBS procedure made no difference,” Dr. Sanger says. “But we’ve seen a very good response in Sydney.”

For example, her once mostly useless right hand was working much better.

“It gives you goosebumps,” Louis Amato says.

After taking a bite of a veggie burger and sipping some water, Sydney started to walk.

Following her were seven CHOC and Sanger Lab specialists.

“Go nice and slowly,” Jennifer told Sydney. “You’re going too fast for us!”

Perhaps Sydney was anxious to get back to riding Tigger, a quarter horse, in her hometown of Carthage, Missouri. She has been riding him for six months.

CHOC patient horseback riding
Sydney is eager to get back to riding her favorite horse, Tigger.

“Her balance isn’t bad on the horse,” says Louis Amato.

Sydney also loves to tan by her pool and swim.

What she wants most, however, is to be freed from her body so she can return to school and do what most teens enjoy.

“It’s stressful,” says her mother, Angie. “She has a lot of friends her age, but she can’t do a lot of the things they do. She has her days when she can get really upset.”

Now, however, working with Dr. Sanger, Dr. Olaya and the entire team at CHOC, the Amatos are more optimistic than ever.

“We’re hopeful that this is going to be a big life-changer for her,” Angie Amato says. “That would be the best thing that could ever happen – better than winning the lottery.”

‘The A-Team’

After crunching numbers for a week to assess which of the nine electrodes proved to be the most effective based on how Sydney responded to varying degrees of electrical currents, Dr. Sanger and his team settled on four electrodes that were permanently used to treat her condition – three new ones, and one existing one.

The team performed this second surgery on Sydney in late August.

In the third and final surgery, successfully completed in early September, a rechargeable generator that powers the DBS leads was implanted in Sydney’s chest.

“As we get better and better at this and as the technology progresses, we’ll be able to do this on kids who are less sick than Sydney,” Dr. Sanger says.

Dr. Sanger and Dr. Olaya are poised to dramatically improve the lives of many more patients like Sydney at CHOC.

“I’m really excited that we will be doing more of these procedures to help pediatric patients with movement disorders and significantly improve their quality of life,” says Dr. Olaya. “I look forward to continuing to provide this type of personalized care.”

a CHOC patient poses with her mom
Sydney, pictured with her mother.

Angie and Louis Amato say Sydney has never gotten this much special attention during her 11-year-plus medical journey.

“Here at CHOC,” Louis Amato says, “we feel like we’re with the A-Team.”

Says Sydney: “I’ve never felt this much confidence and this good about treatment before.”

Learn more about deep brain stimulation at CHOC 

Related posts:

CHOC recognized as one of nation’s best children’s hospitals

best-childrens-hospitals-7specialtiesCHOC is one of a select number of pediatric facilities nationwide to have been ranked today as a best children’s hospital by U.S. News & World Report.

The following CHOC specialties are honored in the 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings: neonatology; cancer; diabetes and endocrinology; neurology and neurosurgery; orthopaedics; pulmonology; and urology. Both orthopaedics and diabetes and endocrinology earned a “Top 20” spot. 

“At CHOC, we are committed to the highest standards of care, safety and service – and this honor reflects that unwavering dedication,” said Dr. James Cappon, CHOC’s vice president, chief quality and patient safety officer and interim chief medical officer. “Not only does this recognition of our excellence in these subspecialties, including two on the top 20 lists, validate our efforts, but it also offers our patients and families additional assurance of our commitment to their health and safety.”

The Best Children’s Hospitals rankings were introduced by U.S. News in 2007 to help families of children with rare or life-threatening diseases find the best medical care available. Only the nation’s top 50 pediatric facilities are distinguished in 10 pediatric specialties, based on survival rates, nurse staffing, procedure and patient volumes, reputation and additional outcomes data. The availability of clinical resources, infection rates and compliance with best practices are also factored into the rankings.

The U.S. News Best Children’s Hospitals rankings rely on clinical data and on an annual survey of pediatric specialists. The rankings methodology factors in patient outcomes, such as mortality and infection rates, as well as available clinical resources and compliance with best practices.

Learn more about Best Children’s Hospitals rankings.

Related posts:

Beating brain cancer and giving back: Brodie’s story

Brodie’s cancer survivor party was a chance to celebrate the completion of his cancer treatment by gathering his family and friends for an epic Nerf battle. Wanting to give back to other CHOC patients, the twelve-year-old boy turned his celebration into a fundraiser. Brodie used the proceeds to buy Legos, journals, games—all his favorite things while in treatment—to brighten the days of other children battling cancer.

brodie-shopping-for-donations
Brodie and his brother shopping for gifts to donate to CHOC patients.

“He wanted to buy more of the things that helped break up his time while he was at CHOC,” says mom Megan. “If you ask Brodie what he wants to be when he grows up, he says ‘I just want to make people happy.’”

Brodie’s journey to a diagnosis

Brodie’s path from initial symptoms to a diagnosis was long. While practicing karate at home, his dad Marcus noticed that his left side didn’t have any “oomph.” Over the next few days, he and Megan realized Brodie was losing coordination in his left hand and left foot.

The first few doctors who saw Brodie ruled out a tumor but couldn’t identify what was causing his loss of coordination. An MRI revealed something on Brodie’s basal ganglia—a collection of nerve cells deep within the brain that help control movement. They were eventually told that Brodie had likely suffered a stroke. Later, another specialist thought it might be iron accumulation on the brain.

“Something looked wrong, but nobody could tell us exactly what it was,” said Marcus.

The family spent 18 months crisscrossing the country, seeking out various pediatric specialists on their quest for answers.

During this time, Brodie had another issue—every five months or so, he would go blind in his left eye for a few days. There was no discernible reason for this loss of vision.

Their quest eventually led them to Dr. Raymond Wang, a pediatric metabolic disorder specialist at CHOC. He was able to rule out a genetic reason for Brodie’s symptoms, and encouraged the family to seek out the care of the CHOC neurology team. The next time Brodie lost vision in his eye, the family headed for the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Hospital. Brodie underwent another MRI, but this time from a different angle due to his eye condition.

They found a tumor.

Another starting line

“The news that Brodie had a brain tumor was not the finish line of the 18-month journey we had been on,” Marcus says. “That was actually the beginning of yet another journey, this one at CHOC.”  

The family was introduced to Dr. Ashley Plant, a pediatric oncologist at CHOC.

dr-ashley-plant-choc-childrens-oncologist
Dr. Ashley Plant, a pediatric oncologist at CHOC

“Not only was she professional and a top-quality doctor, but she was also very warm and empathetic in that first meeting,” Marcus says. “She even gave my wife a hug, which made a lasting positive impression.”

Dr. Plant explained that Brodie needed to undergo a biopsy to determine whether the tumor was cancerous or not. Dr. Joffrey Olaya, a pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC, performed the biopsy.

joffre-olaya-md
Dr. Joffre Olaya, pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC

“I was scared to death when he went in for the biopsy. But I knew we were in very good hands with Dr. Plant and Dr. Olaya,” Marcus says.

The biopsy confirmed the mass in Brodie’s brain was a cancerous tumor known as a germinoma. Germ cells are the reproductive cells in an unborn baby. Germ cells that grow in an unusual way can become a tumor. Often, those tumors form in the ovaries or testes. Sometimes during an embryo’s development, these cells can migrate to the brain and result in intracranial (within the skull) germ cell tumors.

A doctor unlike the rest

Throughout their lengthy journey to find a diagnosis, Megan and Marcus had met many different specialists. They consider Dr. Plant a guide on their son’s treatment journey.

“We were, and continue to be, super impressed with Dr. Plant because not all doctors are like her, and we’ve seen a lot of doctors,” Marcus says. “That doesn’t mean they’re not good, but they don’t all have the same bedside manner as she does.”

Throughout the course of Brodie’s treatment, Megan and Marcus had a lot of decisions to make. In those difficult moments, Dr. Plant was right beside them.

“She provided us with all the information we needed to make responsible decisions, but didn’t make decisions for us,” Marcus recalls. “She helped us make the ultimate decisions as his parents.”

Brodie’s treatment plan included six months of chemotherapy at CHOC, followed by seven weeks of proton radiation in San Diego.

Post-treatment, Brodie has returned to CHOC every few months for an MRI of his brain and a check-up with Dr. Olaya.

“We were so grateful to have Dr. Olaya in our corner because he’s always on the ball. He’s very sharp and conscientious, but also very caring,” Megan says. “It might tell you something that when Dr. Olaya comes in the room, Brodie jumps up and gives him a bear hug.”

Finding a familiar face at CHOC

While Brodie was admitted to CHOC Hospital for chemotherapy, he was visited by a child life specialist from The Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department, a group who strives to normalize the hospital environment for children and their families.

Child life specialists can engage patients in medical play to help them understand procedures and make tests less scary, bring their favorite toys and movies to their rooms, and show them amenities around the hospital like Turtle Talk and Seacrest Studios.

Shayli, the first child life specialist to visit Brodie’s room, turned out to be an old family friend.

“She looked familiar, but as soon as she said her name, a lightbulb went off—we knew her!” Marcus said. “Megan and I have been friends with Shayli’s parents for years, and they’re great people. But we hadn’t seen Shayli since she was a baby—and now here she is, taking care of our son.”

Shayli knew that Brodie loved Star Wars, so whenever characters would make special visits to the hospital, she made sure they didn’t leave before making a special stop in Brodie’s room.

Although Brodie spent a lot of time in his room resting during chemotherapy treatments, he made many visits to the child life playroom as well.

“For a while, it felt like we lived at CHOC, and it was great to have the ability to take Brodie to the play room for air hockey, or watch a movie or play a video game,” Marcus recalls. “There’s nothing you wouldn’t do to take your child’s mind off chemotherapy treatment.”

Brodie today

Despite countless doctor’s appointments and treatments over the last few years, Brodie has no fear of hospitals.

“He’s never met a stranger. Everyone he meets becomes an instant friend,” Megan says. “Brodie gets so excited to see Dr. Plant and the rest of his team. If I tell him that he has an MRI coming up, he’ll say, ‘Sweet!’”

With cancer behind him, Brodie is feeling more like himself. He loves Lego sets, playing X-box with his younger brother Finn, and swimming.

Learn more about the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC Children's

Related posts:

CHOC recognized as one of nation’s best children’s hospitals

CHOC is one of only 50 pediatric facilities in the nation to earn recognition as a best children’s hospital by U.S. News & World Report. The following CHOC specialties are honored in the 2019-20 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings: diabetes/endocrinology, cancer, neonatology, neurology/neurosurgery, pulmonology and urology. Cancer ranked in the “top 20.”

“The national recognition for CHOC’s cancer program is well-deserved. There’s nowhere else I’d rather have gone through treatment than CHOC,” says 17-year-old Sydney Sigafus, CHOC patient and cancer survivor. “Everyone who works at CHOC cares about you as a person, not just a patient. I was included in every decision and conversation about my care.”

The Best Children’s Hospitals rankings were introduced by U.S. News in 2007 to help families of children with rare or life-threatening diseases find the best medical care available. Only the nation’s top 50 pediatric facilities are distinguished in 10 pediatric specialties, based on survival rates, nurse staffing, procedure and patient volumes, reputation and additional outcomes data. The availability of clinical resources, infection rates and compliance with best practices are also factored into the rankings.

us-news-best-childrens-hospitals-6specialties

“We understand how scary it can be for parents whose children are dealing with life-threatening illnesses or injuries. That’s why we are committed to the highest standards of care, safety and service,” says Dr. James Cappon, CHOC’s chief quality officer. “While we are proud of our accolades, including being named a best children’s hospital, we remain focused on preserving the magic of childhood for all kids, whether they are seriously ill or healthy, or somewhere in between.”

Learn more about the Best Children’s Hospitals rankings.

Get important health and parenting tips sent straight to your inbox.

Kids Health, delivered monthly, offers “healthful” information for parents:

Related posts: