Gippsland teenager texts, sends selfies to her family while conscious during brain surgery
IT is as radical a concept as you can get; remove part of someone’s brain and they will be healthier than before.
Gippsland teenager Jess Banik has survived this twice. And the 19-year-old has not only undergone two brain resection surgeries a decade apart at the Royal Children’s Hospital, but she endured the most recent operation while awake; texting, talking and taking selfies throughout.
Only one or two teenagers a year undergo the “awake” brain surgery — it is designed to help protect the areas of her brain that control speech and movement but are so precariously close to the part that was triggering epileptic seizures.
“My friends were pretty amazed I did that type of thing. Surgery is scary enough, but when you’re having it done awake, people tell me that’s just another level of courage,” Ms Banik said.
“I knew it was going to be tough but I knew this was going to give them the best chance of having the best result.”
Mum Vanessa remembers picking up four-year-old Jess from kinder on the day of her first seizure. As they chatted about her day, her daughter’s speech morphed into gibberish and she tried to hide behind her mum’s legs.
Medication worked for four years, but by the age of eight, her seizures were again uncontrollable.
They would come in clusters of dozens or hundreds a day, each bout lasting up to 90 seconds, and leaving Jess as exhausted as if she had run a marathon.
Surgery was her best chance of a seizure-free life. RCH neurosurgeon Wirginia Maixner and neurologist Simon Harvey operated to remove as much abnormal brain tissue as they could while protecting speech.
Occasional seizures remained; not often enough to curtail daily life, but enough to rule out driving — a devastating prospect for a teenager living in Woodside Beach in Gippsland.
The seizures were enough to constantly live with the uncertainty of the next onset.
The proposal of awake brain surgery — to remove the remaining misbehaving tissue — was put to Jess in the middle of last year.
Dr Harvey told her about the other teenagers who were now seizure- free, off medication and able to drive.
Jess thought about her blue Hyundai i30 waiting in the driveway. She daydreamed about not having to worry when the next attack would come. She didn’t take much convincing.
“I was pretty relaxed about being awake — it’s pretty cool, but it’s freaky — but for ages my main concern was having my hair shaved,” she said.
ON THE DAY
In the operating theatre a wall of sterile sheets above Jess’s head is held up with twine. She lies on her right side, protected from seeing the scalpels working on her head, but still able to hear the drills helping to remove a palm-size portion of her skull.
“You’re doing so well, Jess,” Ms Maixner reminds her. “We’re nearly through the hard part.”
Nerve blockers ensure no pain, but once the skull bone is removed and the brain is exposed, sedation stops to allow crucial speech testing.
Throughout, Jess delivers perfect small talk to anaesthetist Andrew Davidson, who sits by her side.
She tells him about the sports traineeship she is taking up at her old high school during her gap year.
As the microscope is wheeled out, allowing Ms Maixner’s delicate scalpel flicks, Jess sends a text message: “Hi Mum. Just woke up. All’s going well. Don’t worry about me to (sic) much.”
The area surgeons are hunting for is small, barely a 1cm square patch hugging the left frontal and temporal lobes that are responsible for speech.
“Everything in language is close, within a millimetre, but with her awake we can safely operate,” says Dr Harvey. “Motor function is centimetres away — miles away in neurosurgery terms — but we’re going underneath and in front of language.” Now, it’s Jess’s turn. She repeats a series of sentences as the surgeons begin to resect. Dr Harvey helps her take selfies on her phone, and they snap photos of her showing a thumbs-up, which she sends to her sister Georgie.
Three weeks after the surgery Jess was back at work, helping run a surf camp.
She will be weaned off anti-seizure medication over the next nine months. If she lasts 12 months without a seizure — the true measure of the surgery’s success — Dr Harvey will be approving her driver’s licence application this time next year. Jess is now simply looking forward to “freedom and independence”.
“I’m a little bit proud of myself,” she said.
“It will be so much better not to have to stress about if I’m going to have a seizure. Life will be so much better.”
Originally published in the Herald Sun, Sunday March 17, 2018
Words: Brigid O’Connell
Images: Jason Edwards