Seizure-Free at Five, Thanks to Epilepsy Surgery and ROSA Robot

Five-year-old Ian Higginbotham recently enjoyed his best summer yet. He experienced his first family vacation. He learned to swim and ride a bike. He got himself ready for kindergarten. These are milestones most kids and parents, alike, eagerly welcome. But there was a time when Ian’s parents weren’t certain their son, who was born seemingly healthy, would enjoy such happy pastimes.

Ian began talking and walking in his sleep as a toddler. When the episodes, including night terrors, increased in frequency and severity, his mom Lisa made an appointment with the pediatrician. One day, Lisa knew something just wasn’t right and didn’t want to wait for the appointment to get Ian checked out. She and her husband Derek took him to the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Children’s Hospital. To her surprise, doctors diagnosed her son with epilepsy.   Ian’s “sleepwalking” and “night terrors” were actually seizures.

The family was referred to CHOC’s comprehensive epilepsy program. A national leader in pediatric epilepsy care, CHOC’s comprehensive epilepsy program offers cutting-edge diagnostics, innovative medical approaches and advanced surgical interventions. CHOC was the first children’s hospital in the state to be named a Level 4 epilepsy center by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers, signifying the highest-level medical and surgical evaluation and treatment for patients with complex epilepsy.

Ian’s neurologist Dr. Andrew Mower suspected he was experiencing complex partial seizures, which was confirmed by video EEG monitoring. Complex partial seizures start in a small area of the temporal or frontal lobe of the brain, and quickly involve the areas of the brain affecting alertness and awareness. The pattern of Ian’s seizures suggested they were originating from the right frontal lobe. Dr. Mower knew Ian and his family were in for a tough journey.

“I really don’t think the general public understands the impact epilepsy has on a child and his family. Its effects are multifaceted and extensive. Our team’s goal is to reduce or eliminate our patients’ seizures, helping improve their quality of life,” explains Dr. Mower, who placed Ian on a series of medications.

The medications reduced Ian’s seizures, but did not control them. Dr. Mower was concerned about the seizures affecting Ian’s development, and presented his case to the epilepsy team.  The multidisciplinary team agreed Ian was a candidate for epilepsy surgery. For children who fail at least two medications, surgery may be considered early in treatment versus as a last resort. Surgery can result in an improvement in seizure control, quality of life, and prevent permanent brain damage. Ian’s surgery was going to be performed by CHOC neurosurgeon Dr. Joffre Olaya.

epilepsy surgery
Ian recovering from epilepsy surgery at CHOC.

While the thought of surgery was frightening to Lisa and her husband, they were confident in the team and comforted to know their son was going to benefit from innovative technology, like the ROSA™ Robot. Considered one of the most advanced robotized surgical assistants, ROSA includes a computer system and a robotic arm. The computer system offers 3D brain mapping to aid surgeons in locating the exact areas they need to reach and planning the best surgical paths. The robotic arm is a minimally invasive surgical tool that improves accuracy and significantly reduces surgery/anesthesia time.

Dr. Olaya used ROSA to accurately place electrodes in the area of Ian’s brain suspected to be the source of his seizures. By using the robot, Dr. Olaya avoided performing a craniotomy (surgery to cut into the skull, removing a section called a bone flap, to access the brain).

“ROSA is an amazing tool that yields many benefits for our patients, including less time under anesthesia in the operating room. It reduces blood loss and risk of infections. Patients tend to recover faster than they would if they had craniotomy,” says Dr. Olaya.

Lisa was amazed at the outcome. “I couldn’t believe how great Ian looked after the placements of the electrodes with ROSA. He wasn’t in any pain, there was no swelling. It was wonderful!”

She and her husband were also amazed at how well Ian did following his epilepsy surgery.

“We got our boy back,” says Lisa. “There were no more side effects from medication and, more importantly, no more seizures!  He started developing again and doing all the things a child his age should do.”

epilepsy surgery
After epilepsy surgery, Ian has been able to do things other kids his age are doing, like riding scooters.

Ian’s care team isn’t surprised by his recovery.

“Children are resilient, and their brains are no different. In fact, the plasticity of a young brain allows it to adapt to changes and heal more easily than an adult brain,” explains Dr. Mower.

Learning to ride a bike and swim were among the first of many milestones Ian quickly reached following surgery. He enjoys playing with his younger brother and his friends. And, whether inspired by his experience with ROSA or not, Ian loves robots.

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Son’s Epilepsy Journey Inspires Mom to Help Others

The spread inside a conference room in CHOC Children’s neuroscience unit would be a welcomed sight for any parent: a box of glistening bagels, jugs of steaming coffee, and a warm smile from Kathy Lear.

Whether it’s by offering nourishment or a kind word of encouragement, Kathy stands ready to help a fellow parent of a child contending with epilepsy or other complications.

“We’re trying to do these breakfasts once a week,” she says. “It’s nice to help out.”

After all, it’s a journey that Kathy’s intimately familiar with.

After her son Matthew’s typical birth and toddlerhood, signs that something was amiss appeared in kindergarten. Suddenly, Matthew would start ignoring his parents. Thinking it odd, they made an appointment with the pediatrician.

But before the appointment rolled around, Matthew’s school called one afternoon. Administrators were concerned that he had experienced an absence seizure – a type wherein someone suddenly stares off into space.

At CHOC, an electroencephalogram confirmed that Matthew was indeed d having seizures. He was diagnosed with epilepsy on Halloween 2008, just days before his sixth birthday.

Matthew began care under Dr. Mary Zupanc, director of CHOC’s pediatric comprehensive epilepsy program. The years that followed would be marked by a series of attempts to control Matthew’s seizures, including antiepileptic medication, a special diet and two epilepsy surgeries.

The epilepsy surgeries were palliative procedures, which would partially control the seizures, but not cure the epilepsy or stop all of the seizures. Inevitably, the seizures, although less frequent and less severe, would start again.

Ultimately, Dr. Zupanc recommended implantation of a new type of vagus nerve stimulation device, which sends electrical signals to Matthew’s brain to stop the seizures. Implanted by CHOC neurosurgeon Dr. Joffre Olaya, the device has brought relief to Matthew and his family.

“It disrupts any seizures that might be starting,” Kathy says. “It’s caused a dramatic increase in his ability to respond to us. It has made just a world of difference.”

epilepsy

Matthew now has quarterly visits to the hospital. Now 13, Matthew is doing well, attending special education classes in middle school, and participating in several sports through a recreational league.

“He’ll never be off his medication, but we do hope that we might have seizure freedom again,” Kathy says. “He’ll never not have to deal with epilepsy.”

Between his surgeries, seizure monitoring and other visits, Matthew’s time in the hospital totaled at least six months, Kathy estimated. And without the support of their family, friends and community, the journey would have been nearly impossible for the Lear family, Kathy says.

“We as a family couldn’t have done it without the support of our family and friends,” she says. “It really does take a village. Between bringing us meals, visiting in the hospital, coming back and forth to sports practices – just little things like that really helped.”

That support network has also helped give Kathy the time to make it a priority to help others who are also dealing with epilepsy.

She’s a parent representative on one of CHOC’s clinical practice councils, which help evaluate and improve patient care. Kathy also serves on CHOC’s Family Advisory Council, a diverse group of adult family members who meet regularly to provide input on decisions, initiatives and discussions.

That role brought her to the recent breakfast in the neuroscience unit. Made possible by a grant, the spread is hosted by CHOC’s Patient- and Family-Centered Care team, which supports CHOC’s philosophy that patients and families are part of the care team.

The breakfasts are designed to offer support and comfort to families who find themselves on the unit for days at a time, often while their children are undergoing testing or experiencing other complications.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as parents asking where they can find toothpaste. I tell them that we can definitely help,” Kathy says with a laugh.

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Kara’s Story: A Journey with Epilepsy

Heidi Sexton knew her young epileptic daughter, Kara, needed more help. Anti-seizure medications didn’t help, hospital visits were frequent, and seizures and tantrums continued.

“It was time,” Heidi recalled. “I went in to the next doctor’s appointment with my questions: What else can we try? This isn’t working.”

Dr. Mary Zupanc, director of CHOC Children’s comprehensive epilepsy program, offered her recommendation: Kara needs brain surgery.

A little girl’s long road

Though no doubt a staggering consideration, brain surgery would be the next landmark on a long medical history that belied Kara’s short three years of life.

At just 13 months old, she underwent emergency brain surgery after her frontal lobe hemorrhaged, caused by a previously undiscovered vascular malformation. The hemorrhage in Kara’s brain led to right-side hemiplegia, leaving her no use of her right hand and limited the use her right leg.

Kara underwent physical therapy and began walking at age 2. Life was relatively normal for the Sexton family until just after Kara’s third birthday, when she began acting strangely.

Kara’s body would stiffen, she’d fall down and stare off into space, Heidi recalled. It wasn’t until a visit to the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Children’s Hospital that the Sextons would learn Kara was having seizures.

At the CHOC Children’s Neuroscience Institute, Kara underwent an electroencephalogram, or EEG, a test that monitors for electrical activity in the brain. Next, she spent six days undergoing long-term video EEG monitoring. From there, Dr. Zupanc, also CHOC’s neurology division chair, made an official diagnosis of epilepsy and prescribed an anti-epileptic medication.

Exploring other options

Nonetheless, Kara’s seizures continued. Kara’s three older siblings were acutely aware of their sister’s disorder, daily counting Kara’s seizures and agonizing over each hospital visit. The family began to placate Kara in hopes of staving off outbursts and tantrums, Heidi said.

“Kara had between two and four seizures a day,” she said. “It really messed with her behaviorally. She’s a lovely kid, but she suffered serious temper tantrums. It was physically and emotionally exhausting.”

A second six-day monitoring session led Dr. Zupanc to change Kara’s medication and, as a precaution, begin evaluating her as a candidate for epilepsy brain surgery.

Further tests and scans revealed that the left hemisphere of Kara’s brain was significantly injured and atrophied – likely related to her earlier hemorrhage. In addition, Kara’s new anti-epileptic medication wasn’t working.

Dr. Zupanc concluded that the next step was a hemispherectomy, a surgical procedure in which one side of the brain is removed or disconnected.

Kara

“On scans, Kara’s hemisphere was completely white,” Heidi said. “The only thing her left hemisphere was doing was causing seizures. There was no question.”

A change of course

Nearly 11 months after the seizures first surfaced, Kara underwent surgery at CHOC to remove a portion of her brain’s left side, and disconnect the remaining portion from the right hemisphere. Performed by neurosurgeon Dr. Joffre Olaya, the procedure lasted six hours.

After 16 days recovering in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit, Kara went home just after her fourth birthday.

Much to her parents’ and siblings’ relief, Kara hasn’t had a seizure since her surgery eight months ago. Kara still relies on an anti-epileptic medication, but she may be able to stop taking it completely or use a lower dose of medication soon if her progress continues.

Though considering a second brain surgery was daunting for the Sextons, Heidi and her husband knew the procedure was the right choice to help their daughter.

“I looked at it in a sense of quality of life for Kara,” Heidi said. “Hopefully now she’ll be able to drive one day. Continued seizures would have impaired her cognitively forever, and I didn’t want that.”

Though she still requires extensive care, Kara is doing well physically and emotionally and is looking forward to preschool.

Kara isn’t fully aware of her journey in the last year, but she understands the meaning of the scar on her head just above her ear.

“She knows now that she doesn’t have seizures and Dr. Olaya and Dr. Zupanc fixed her,” Heidi said.

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Thank you, Parents and Families!

As I help CHOC Children’s celebrate its 50th anniversary, the overwhelming feeling for me and many I’ve met around the hospital is gratitude.

For me, I’m grateful for the care I received when I fell out of that tree in 1964 and the friends I’ve made ever since. So many patients I’ve met are thankful for the bright futures and milestones they’ve achieved thanks to CHOC’s care.

And CHOC’s physicians are no exception. They’re grateful for the trust that parents and families instill in them each and every day. In this video, CHOC physicians express their gratitude.