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Newport News woman has 'miracle recovery' from brain surgery

Kylee Basham has half a brain. Literally. The 30-year-old Navy wife, who moved to Newport News from Arizona with her husband, Joshua, a year ago, has beaten the odds. At age 17, tired of living with multiple daily seizures and desperate to be able to drive, Basham opted for a supremely risky 9-hour surgery in which Dr. Kris A. Smith and his team at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix "disconnected" the two sides of her brain. Since then she has been seizure-free.

"I was ready to die — ready to not come back the way I was," she says.

Her "miracle recovery," so called by the doctors themselves, is now recorded on video as part of the hospital's 50th anniversary celebration.

The miracle is that despite the complete disabling of the left hemisphere of her brain, Basham did not suffer any of the expected physical or intellectual deficits. The risks associated with the surgery included loss of vision, memory loss and speech problems. Encountering none of these, she went on to graduate with her high school class, complete degrees in elementary education, and become a teacher, now working with adults with intellectual disabilities.

"I love my job. I know from experience what they're going through. I'm very patient with their frustrations," she says.

Basham had her first epileptic seizure when she was 2 years old. Her next wasn't until her first day of 1st grade, but then their frequency picked up. By high school she was having daily seizures, though not all grand mal, which are characterized by a loss of consciousness. Sometimes they would occur as many as eight times a day. They lasted only a few seconds, but during that time she would lose all function, tripping and falling. Or she might keep repeating someone's name. Sitting in class, she would list to one side at her desk, and her special ed peers would come to her aid.

One to 2 percent of U.S. residents suffer from seizures, and of those, all but about 20 percent respond to medication. "I was on so many different meds," she says, counting them at 13. "I just had no clue what was going on. They never really controlled anything." She learned to give herself time, up to 30 minutes or so after each episode before trying to sit up, then another 15 before standing. "I was patient with myself," she says.

Approaching the age of 16, when her peers were learning to drive, Basham wanted more than anything to join them. "She felt self-conscious, unsure of herself and embarrassed. She wanted to be as 'normal' as possible," says Smith, her neurosurgeon at Barrow, a hospital a few hours away from the family's rural home in Arizona. The seizures associated with medically refractory epilepsy prevented her from getting behind the wheel.

With 24-hour monitoring, Smith determined that Kylee's seizures were all coming from one side of her brain. He traced them to a stroke suffered while in utero. Smith has treated several others with the same problem by removing the damaged part of the brain. "They usually have one side that's useless. They can't see to the right field, they limp and have a weak hand," he says.

As an infant, Kylee had favored her left side over her right when crawling. When she started to walk, she used the side of her right foot which led to the wearing of a brace. At age 7, when she had her second seizure, she had a right heel cord extension operation to give her more flexibility. She also had reconstructive surgery on her right hand. "It was not a good year," says Basham mildly.

Because she had her vision, Smith was faced with a very difficult surgery, one that he's never repeated. "We didn't want to remove anything that would cause her to lose her sight," he says. He came up with a then-new minimally invasive two-stage procedure in which, after establishing the source of the seizures, he "disconnected" the two sides of the brain through a small incision and removed just a small part of the temporal lobe in order to preserve the blood supply to the occipital lobe.

Smith characterizes brain function as being "almost two individuals" with the sides communicating with one another. "The brain is adaptable and can develop functions in the other hemisphere," he says, referencing Basham's excellent language skills that are normally controlled by the left side, "but vision is split directly down the middle and has never been shown to be all functional in one hemisphere alone."

It took a year of prep work between the decision, supported by her parents, and the surgery in December 1998. "The decision was by Kylee. We knew how devastating it was, she couldn't be very independent. She was quite determined she'd be alright," says her father, Jack Crews, who wrote a book, "Getting off the Short Bus" about her experiences. "What the surgeon did was something quite unique."

For Kylee, the surgery was a make-or-break decision. "It was a chance I had to take," she says. "I'm very blessed to be alive. I came out of it crystal clear."

At age 18, after the requisite six months being free of seizures, Basham got her driver's license. And she's never looked back.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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