After struggling to get pregnant, Kristin and Jason were delighted to learn that they were expecting twins. Even though she was carrying a double burden of babies, Kristin sailed through her pregnancy and delivered a healthy boy, Jackson, and a healthy girl, Charlie Claire, just two weeks prior to their due date. The North family rejoiced at the addition of their two blond, cherubic babies.
The first two days of the twins’ lives went exactly as planned. Both Jackson and Charlie fed well and seemed to be adjusting to newborn life. But on the evening of her second day of life, when Charlie Claire’s father was feeding her a bottle, he wondered if her color appeared a little “off.” It was hard to tell in the dimly lit hospital room, but Jason wondered if his new daughter was the color of ominous thunder clouds instead of the expected baby pink. Before Jason and Kristin could think more, the episode was over.
The following morning, however, Charlie had another brief spell where her appearance altered. This time, Charlie was taken quickly to the nursery and was found to have low oxygen levels. Even though Jason had already left the hospital to get things ready for the twins’ expected discharge, a nurse quickly informed Kristin that her new baby had “bought herself a 48-hour stay” in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
Throughout the day, Charlie Claire had many similar dusky spells. The NICU provider on duty noted that Charlie’s eyes repeatedly drifted toward the right with each spell. Eventually, Charlie’s parents heard a diagnosis that they never expected but that would become alarmingly familiar as time progressed. After monitoring Charlie for the entire day, the NICU provider ventured, “I think she’s having seizures.”
Shortly after this revelation, an EEG confirmed the presence of seizures. A subsequent MRI revealed a malformed region of Charlie’s brain. Charlie was started on the anti-epileptic medication phenobarbital and the spells stopped almost immediately. After over a week in the hospital and careful adjustment of phenobarbital to acceptable levels, Charlie Claire was sent home to join her healthy twin brother.
Things went smoothly initially after Charlie’s hospital stay and seizures began to feel like a distant memory. But when she was two months old, Charlie’s parents noted that she had brief episodes of unusual movements that seemed like muscle spasms. Charlie’s mother recorded the events and showed the video to her neurologist at a routine visit. Unconvinced the episodes were seizures, he arranged for another EEG.
Kristin vividly remembers the day that she took Charlie for her first outpatient EEG. As she sat quietly in the waiting room, she tried not to worry when the EEG technician rushed out of the room and explained that she was going to get the neurologist. Within moments of the doctor’s arrival, the EEG technician again poked her head out of the room and spoke with urgency to Kristin, “The doctor wants to talk to you.”
Charlie’s EEG revealed that she was having almost continuous seizures. She was admitted to the intensive care unit immediately and was started on a series of different antiepileptic medications. Charlie was treated with Keppra, Dilantin, Tegretol, and her phenobarbital levels were increased. Still, she continued to have seizures. Finally, one of her neurologists conceded, “we’ve done everything that we can do. Charlie will need to have brain surgery for treatment of her seizures.”
One month later, Charlie’s seizures were characterized as infantile spasms (IS). Her diagnosis of the developmentally detrimental IS placed increased urgency on the proposed brain surgery. Still, her doctors warned that surgery was too high-risk until Charlie was six months old. Holding their struggling two-month-old in their steady arms, Kristin and Jason prepared for a long wait.
Months later, Kristin and Jason remember the staff at Virginia Commonwealth University hospital (VCU) as being welcoming, gracious in their explanations, and hopeful while speaking about Charlie’s future instead of focusing on the challenges of today. Charlie had surgery to resect the malformed area of her brain in her right temporal-parietal-occipital lobe in March 2011. Immediately after her surgery, Charlie’s infantile spasms disappeared.
But on Mother’s Day 2011, Charlie’s parents noted that she started having another type of event where she would briefly look to the right, flutter her eyelids, giggle, and then return to her normal demeanor 30 – 45 seconds later. This time, Charlie was diagnosed with the more benign simple partial seizures and started treatment with Lamictal. A repeat MRI and EEG confirmed the remaining presence of a malformed portion of her occipital lobe. Charlie had a second resective surgery in the fall of 2011 to remove the remnant of irregular brain tissue. Unfortunately, her second surgery did little to change the nature of her partial seizures.
Charlie will be 4 years old in October. Her parents report that by all accounts, she is a normal, active, and happy little girl. Like most young girls, she has memorized all the words and characters in the movie Frozen. She also fosters a fierce bossy streak that lends a charming “sassiness” to her demeanor. Her parents were filled with pride when they took their twins to a birthday party and another parent expressed disbelief upon hearing Charlie’s history of two brain surgeries and epilepsy. “I would never know!” the other parent effused. “She doesn’t look any different than any of the other children!”
But despite outward appearances, Charlie still has her share of challenges to face as she grows. She works with a physical therapist, occupational therapist, and speech therapist five days a week to help her maintain and acquire new skills. Her depth perception and vision is affected by the visual field defect acquired through epilepsy surgery.
Charlie’s parents report that her positive outcome has been directly affected by her twin brother, who has been Charlie’s greatest teacher. “All along the way, Jackson has been present to challenge Charlie,” Kristin reports. “Anything that he is doing, she wants to be doing.” Jackson doesn’t remember the periods of time when Charlie was critically ill in the intensive care units, but he was fascinated by the hat of wires she wore during her recent inpatient stay for a continuous EEG.
While raising twins always has it’s challenges, Kristin states that her experiences with Charlie Claire have taught her a lot of things about parenting. “I’ve learned to always trust your instincts about your own child,” she said. “When Charlie started having her seizures, I thought that something was wrong and there was.
“I have also learned how to consistently go to bat for our daughter. I’m determined that Charlie will never fail due to lack of effort on our part.
“Charlie has also taught me not to get ahead of myself. Often I have worried about things such as what if she doesn’t pass the next test, what if she doesn’t do well in kindergarten. . . I have been forced to learn to enjoy Charlie today and every day.”
Kristin’s voice is hopeful as she summarizes her family’s journey with Charlie Claire so far. “We didn’t know what to expect. Everyone said, ‘we don’t have a crystal ball,’ now people at birthday party have no idea what she’s been through. We could have only dreamed that we’d make it this far.”
You can learn more about Charlie Claire’s journey on Kristin’s blog: http://www.charlieclaire.com
Please pass it on.