2011-12-01 / Community
Doctors, patient share brain surgery tale with Agoura High students
At the age of 9, Rebecca Kopp of Pasadena underwent a hemispherectomy, a surgical procedure in which half of her brain was removed as a last ditch effort to treat a severe seizure disorder called Rasmussen’s encephalitis (RE).
On Nov. 11, Kopp, now 27, shared her story with Agoura High School students in Joanne Anderson’s International Baccalaureate psychology class.
In addition to hearing Kopp’s tale, students learned about cuttingedge advances in neurology and the current buzz on human brain plasticity from Dr. Gary Mathern, a neurosurgeon at UCLA Medical Center, and Dr. Stella de Bode, a specialist in neuroplasticity.
Healthy as a baby and young child, Kopp said an undetected viral disease led to her having unrelenting brain seizures at the age of 6. At one point, she was experiencing 40 seizures a day.
“Not one medication helped me in any way, shape or form,” Kopp said.
The first brain surgery Kopp underwent failed. In that attempt, doctors tried to rewire her brain and preserve as much brain tissue as possible. By 1993, Kopp’s options had run out; her doctors felt they had no choice but to remove the right hemisphere of her brain.
Recovery was grueling, she said. The left side of her body was paralyzed; she had intense migraine headaches, and she completely lost her appetite. Kopp had to relearn how to walk and talk, and has not regained the use of her left hand.
“I was angry—I was trying so hard with no guarantees,” Kopp said. “No one would say I would ever recover.”
Kopp recovered but not without challenges. Simple tasks such as learning to brush her teeth were a milestone.
“For every challenge I face there is a solution,” Kopp said. “I have to deal with living one-handed in a two-handed world.”
Kopp eventually went back to school. Without the right side of her brain, comprehension of advanced math concepts in middle school was nearly impossible. Her brother, she said, “babied me through every problem.”
In high school, Kopp developed “focal seizures,” which affected a specific area of her brain. But, with medication and determination, Kopp graduated from high school and attended Pasadena City College, where she discovered her passion for working with children.
Kopp has been a successful preschool teacher for four years.
Mathern told students that every person has a “seizure threshold.” Alcohol, fevers and head injuries from sports could trigger a seizure, he said. A characteristic of epilepsy is two unprovoked seizures. Of those people who experience seizures, one-third of them will be diagnosed with epilepsy.
Mathern described epilepsy as a disease that “hijacks your brain.”
De Bode said brain plasticity is a hot topic in neurology.
“The brain changes all the time,” de Bode said, explaining that with every experience, the brain’s structure shifts. “You’re changing your brain every second,” she said. While the gray matter of the brain has always been considered the center of brain activity, new theories are focusing on the “white matter,” or neurons that fire between brain cells.
Every experience a person undertakes strengthens the brain, de
“The entire brain is plastic.”
De Bode presented an example that she hoped would hit home with high school students. If one student is mean to another, a wound has been inflicted on the brain of the student who’s been picked on, she said. If a child is bullied once, there might not be a lasting effect, but if it happens two, three or more times, the brain becomes scarred.
People have often been classifi ed as using one side of their brain more than the other.
The left side of the brain is thought of as the logical, thinking side, while the right side of the brain has been considered the bed of artistic expression.
“There is no left-right division,” de Bode said. “There’s no such thing as an analytic left and artistic right (brain). “It’s all connected.”
When an injury occurs to a portion of the brain, the other hemisphere can take over some functions as long as the injury happens at a young enough age.
De Bode suggested to students that they consider occupations to help people.
“We are judged by how we care for those who can’t help themselves,” she said.
Medical engineers are needed, de Bode said. Some brain surgeries can’t be performed on babies for lack of small needles that have yet to be invented.
“People don’t do it because it’s not profitable,” she said.
Kopp suggested to students that when they come across people with challenges that they “see the person first and the disease second.”