Kelsey Cartwright undergoes brain surgery for epilepsy

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 25, 2009

Two months ago I shared with you the story of how a positive-thinking Grade 12 Cochrane High student spent her 17th birthday in a Calgary hospital with electrodes decorating her scalp like candles on a cake. (See my Sept. 23 column.) Kelsey Cartwright was being tested for possible brain surgery to rid her of the epileptic seizures that had been part of her life since she was 11.

Several of our coffee companions have been asking how things are going with this amazing young woman. Well, here’s the rest of the story according to Kelsey’s mother, Kellie Cartwright, and Kelsey herself.

Kelsey’s September test results indicated that she was a good candidate. Six weeks later she was admitted into a Calgary hospital for the first of two surgical procedures.

In the Nov. 10th procedure, the neurosurgical team placed a grid onto the area around Kelsey’s right temporal lobe to obtain a more exact reading of where her seizures originated. This region at the front of the brain was the general area indicated by the earlier tests, but now they needed to pinpoint precisely the source in preparation for the second surgical procedure, in which that part of the brain would be removed.

For the grid to do its job, it was necessary for Kelsey to actually have seizures while connected to the 94 electrodes of the grid. That was easier said than done.

To help trigger seizures more quickly, they took her off her seizure-control medication and started her on sleep deprivation – only short periods of sleep at a time, with lots of visiting, reading and TV to fill the long waking hours.

On Nov. 12 her mother, Kellie, reported: “We keep her awake with caramel frappuccinos with a triple shot of espresso” – one during the day and two at night!

“Sleep deprivation sucks,” Kelsey wrote after a few rounds of this. “Usually I am begging to be allowed to stay up later, not begging to be granted an earlier bedtime.”

Finally at 6:22 a.m., Nov. 15, she had a “good seizure,” the kind the medical team wanted to see.

The “seizure started in the right frontal lobe, the part closest to where it attaches to the temporal lobe,” Kellie wrote. “The seizure then travelled across the anterior temporal lobe and also went the other direction across the frontal lobe.”

Two smaller seizures on Nov. 16 helped confirm the part of the brain to be removed in the second surgery, scheduled for 10 a.m. the next day.

Right up to going into surgery, Kelsey kept up her great sense of humour. She even entertained the medical team with her special T-shirt decorated with its punny take-off on the Latin phrase, carpe diem: “Epilepsy – seize the day!” Lots of laughter while preparing to give the surgeon a piece of her mind!

The surgery lasted five hours. During that time only about five per cent of the brain was removed, in particular, according to Kellie, a small portion of the right frontal lobe, with also an anterior temporal lobectomy. This anterior temporal portion was “already very compromised by past seizures and operated at a handicap level,” so it shouldn’t even be missed.

By the next day, Kelsey was out of Intensive Care and able to respond perfectly to her mother’s instructions, such as counting in German (a language Kelsey is studying in school).

By the 19th Kelsey was walking around and visiting energetically with friends and relatives – and actually starting to catch up on all that missed sleep.

She left the hospital on Nov. 21 and returned home to enjoy her 10 new puppies and her cat, Precious.

While she was in the hospital, in addition to all the family and friends who visited her in person and helped keep her awake during those long hours of sleep-deprivation, she received almost 400 notes which she was able to read on her laptop, thanks to CarePages, a wonderful Internet service for encouraging the hospitalized.

The messages made her “laugh, smile and cry (in a good way),” she says.

“With the unknown of knowing how the surgery would work out, I feel very blessed and grateful to still be myself,” she wrote the other day. “And as my mom puts it, she is happy and grateful to have her beautiful, funny, smart, sarcastic and sometimes lippy teenager still here. My family and I are sighing a big relief that everything has worked out to this point.”

Kelsey, an aspiring veterinarian, collected lots of photos of her hospital stay and how her head looked – inside and out. She even talked the surgical team into taking some photos for her while she was under the knife. “For anyone wanting a great medical slide show,” she says, “I am more than willing to share. It will be a great addition to my Biology 30 next semester, too.”

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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