Six-year-old Beats the Odds Thanks to Life-Saving Brain Surgery at CHOC

At just 6 years old, Madison Morrison has earned the nickname “Miracle Maddy” after recovering from life-saving surgery at CHOC Children’s. The spunky girl, who loves listening to music and drawing, defied the odds of survival when the flu caused encephalitis (viral meningitis with life-threatening brain swelling). Within 48 hours of being taken to the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Children’s Hospital, Maddy underwent emergency brain surgery and was placed in a medically induced coma. For the next two months, her parents remained by her bedside in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).

Mike, Maddy’s dad, says February 4 marked the beginning of their journey. He and his wife Angel never imagined a trip to the emergency department for vomiting would end with their youngest child fighting for her life. On the evening of her admission, Maddy’s nurse immediately noticed when her patient became unresponsive and her pupils became fixed and dilated – grave findings suggestive of dangerous brain swelling. Maddy was intubated, placed in a coma and underwent surgery to have a device placed in her brain to measure and help reduce the pressure inside her skull. Given the fixed volume of the skull, there is little room to accommodate for brain swelling. As it does, the pressure in the skull increases. Seizures, strokes and even death can occur if the pressure rises significantly.

The pressure inside Maddy’s skull remained very high. Her physicians feared she would not survive. After all medical interventions failed to control the brain swelling and lower the pressure in her skull, and after a scan revealed Maddy was at imminent risk of death, CHOC neurosurgeon Dr. William Loudon presented Mike and Angel with one final measure:  a  decompressive craniectomy, a surgery in which part of the skull is removed to allow a swelling brain to expand beyond the normal confines of the closed skull.

miracle-maddy-and-dr-william-loudon
Miracle Maddy and her pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. William Loudon

“Dr. Loudon patiently explained everything, including the risks, and assured us he’d care for Maddy as though she was his own daughter,” recalls Mike. “We were naturally frightened, but we had confidence in him and trusted he would do everything in his control to save her.”

Mike adds, “He kept his word. We will forever be grateful to him.”

Maddy remained in a coma as she continued to heal. Her PICU care team became, in her parents’ words, “the protectors.”

“Without ever hearing her voice or experiencing her outgoing personality, the team stood by Maddy’s side to not only protect her and save her life, but to love her. The people in CHOC’s PICU are special. There’s no way to understand the emotion and bonds created in that unit unless you’ve been there and experienced the passion within the entire team and the love they have for their jobs, their patients and their parents,” shares Mike.

The PICU team rallied with Mike and Angel when Maddy came out of the coma. She still had a tough recovery ahead, but with the help of CHOC’s speech, physical and occupational therapists, she relearned to walk, talk and eat.

miracle-maddy-recovers-after-brain-surgery-at-choc
Miracle Maddy recovering after brain surgery at CHOC.

The day Maddy was discharged from the PICU was bittersweet. Her parents were thrilled to be taking her home but sad to say goodbye to the staff who had become part of their family.

Angel explains, “Not only did the people in the PICU save Madison’s life, they were smiling faces to us day in and day out. They were a big part of our encouragement, while sharing in our hope and our worry. I was grateful to leave the PICU but sad to leave so many amazing people.”

Shortly after arriving home, Maddy was living up to her nickname. Walking laps around her home, dancing to her favorite songs and enjoying some Snapchat fun, she was putting her hospital stay behind her and focusing on the joys of childhood. And her CHOC family wouldn’t want it any other way for their “Miracle Maddy.”

Learn more about neurosurgery at CHOC

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From CHOC Neurosurgery Parent to CHOC Chaplain

The first time Chaplain Steve came to CHOC Children’s, he had just found out his daughter Catie needed an emergency neurosurgery. Now, he’s back for good― as the newest chaplain on CHOC’s spiritual care team.

Chaplain Steve and Choco Bear
Chaplain Steve is the newest member of CHOC’s spiritual care team. But first, he was a CHOC parent.

Ever since pre-school, Catie had experienced difficulties with body awareness, some motor skills, coordination, attentiveness in school and other challenges that didn’t seem to fit her developmental stage.

For five years, Steve and his wife Claudia explored everything: psychiatry, ophthalmology, behavior modification, medication, coaching, neurofeedback and more. Finally, when she was 8 years old they advocated for a referral to a pediatric neurologist, rule out the possibility that there was something wrong with her brain. Even though Catie didn’t show any of the physical symptoms typically associated with a mass in her brain, such as headaches, seizures, fainting or major motor problems, their neurologist ordered an MRI just to be safe.

After five years of trying new therapies and hitting dead ends, Steve and Claudia didn’t know what to expect from Catie’s MRI results, or if they were finally about to get answers.

Catie’s scans revealed that she had a large arachnoid cyst in her brain. The fluid-filled sac measured 10 centimeters, about the size of a baseball.

“I was in shock” Steve says of the moment his wife called him with the results. “I remember exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing at that time. I remember begging my wife, “Please tell me you’re kidding. Please tell me you’re kidding.”

Dr. William Loudon, a pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC Children’s came to The Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department to meet the family, who was trying to process a lot of information at once.

Dr. William Loudon CHOC pediatric neurosurgeon
Dr. William Loudon, a pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC Children’s.

“He told us that this was serious, but that they were going to take care of it right away,” Steve recalls. “He explained very clearly what he was going to do to drain the cyst and how he was going to do it.”

Steve and Claudia didn’t understand how a cyst could have been growing for years inside her skull undetected.

“Although Catie hadn’t yet shown physical side effects, she inevitably would have begun to decompensate, which would’ve greatly increased her risk of injury,” said Dr. Loudon.

Since Catie is the oldest child in her family and the first to undergo a major surgery, her parents were naturally worried, about everything from anesthesia to recovery

“Dr. Loudon told us that he would care for our daughter as if she were his own child,” Steve says. “Since working at CHOC, I’ve heard him tell other families in the emergency department the same thing. I know that he means it every time.”

Dr. Loudon performed a series of surgeries to open the cyst and allow it to drain internally, a procedure known as endoscopic cyst fenestration. He made a small cut in her skull and then punctured a tiny hole on either side of the cyst to allow the fluid to drain internally over a period of time.

Dr. Loudon’s commitment to Catie’s safety was deeply appreciated by her parents.

“I saw the way his team acted, and how they interacted with my daughter,” Steve recalls. “Dr. Loudon takes his job very seriously and he goes after the problem. We knew she was in good hands.”

Catie recovering from neurosurgery at CHOC
Catie recovering from neurosurgery at CHOC

With every hospital stay, Steve found that his own natural instinct was to offer support to other parents, whether it be in the waiting room or the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). By this point, Steve had been a chaplain in a hospice setting for six years.

“Even while we were the ones receiving care, my first reaction was always to rush to other families in need, but since I was there as a parent, there was only so much I could do,” he says.

Now that Chaplain Steve has officially joined the spiritual care team at CHOC, he is able to offer spiritual and emotional support to patients and families.

“I have my own beliefs and faith traditions, but these come secondary to what a family needs in a time of crisis,” Steve says.

Today, Catie is a high school student who loves science, space and kids. She hasn’t been hospitalized since her last surgery, although a few years ago she came back to CHOC with a broken foot that she got “pretending to be a ninja,” as her dad says. She still treasures the Choco bear that she received when she was a patient, but sometimes loans him to her little brother if he’s feeling under the weather.

Chaplain Steve and family
Catie’s family is happy to report that she has not been hospitalized in the last five years.
Learn more about neurosurgery at CHOC

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