As captain of her high school cheerleading squad, Brittany Irwin was the picture of health. Hidden in her brain, though, was a condition that was about to take over her life.
“I had headaches since I was in 7th grade—small ones at the back of my head,” says Brittany. “But I thought that was normal.” She occasionally would lose her balance, and sometimes her arms and legs would tingle a little. “Nothing really bad, though,” she says.
That was until her junior year of cheerleading at North Andover High School when she got hit in the head–four times.
“In cheerleading, I am a base,” says Brittany. “So, two times in that season I got kicked in the head, and twice I got hit.” Three of those injuries were diagnosed as concussions.
Brittany says, “The second one was right before we competed in States, and I don’t even remember competing.” The last one kept her out for the rest of the season.
Her headaches got worse too. “I was still having headaches three months after the last hit,” says Brittany. “The [cheerleading] trainer wouldn’t let me come back until a neurologist cleared me.”
Living just outside of Boston, she had her choice of specialists. A neurosurgeon at one of Boston’s large metropolitan hospitals had an MRI done and examined Brittany in May. He told her the concussions were healed but he had discovered a bigger problem.
Brittany had a Chiari malformation. Present since birth, the back of her skull and spinal column were not fully developed, causing part of her brain to push down into her spinal canal.
This had gone unnoticed until Brittany’s body had grown enough to put pressure on her brain and spinal cord. That was why she had been having the tingling and loss of balance, and why her headaches were getting worse.
The treatment for Chiari malformation is surgical. Surgeons can go into the base of the skull and remove bone and tissue to take pressure off the brain and spinal cord. While this procedure will stop the problem from getting worse, damage to the brain or chord that has already occurred cannot always be reversed.
Brittany’s symptoms at this point were mild. The doctor told her that her malformation was relatively minor and that she wasn’t a candidate for this surgery. He said to come back if the headaches got worse.
They did get worse; by the end of the summer she had to stop cheerleading. “I felt pressure in my head all the time. Any kind of exertion made it worse,” Brittany says. “It was devastating to quit.”
In the Fall of her senior year, her school work began to suffer too. “Making it through a whole day of school was really hard,” Brittany says. She was put on a reduced schedule but still missed a lot of days. ”The only thing that really helped was sleep. I was exhausted all the time.”
Still, the neurosurgeon insisted she wasn’t a surgical candidate so Brittany and her mom sought another opinion. The results were the same; based on her images, she was not a candidate for surgery.
Brittany began a four month trial of pain management. She says, “I saw a lot of different doctors. I tried three different medications and none of them worked. I did physical therapy for a little bit and it didn’t work. I got nerve blocks and it didn’t work at all. We tried everything.”
She returned to the second surgeon and the answer was still no. Then, through a neighbor, Brittany and her family heard about Dr. Richard Anderson from the The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute of New York
He had been treating a relative of theirs who happened to be visiting and gave him a call. “Dr. Anderson called us back right away,” says Brittany. “And he asked my mom to send him all of the films [X-rays and MRI scans]. He called back less than 24 hours later and said, ‘I think I might be able to help you.’”
Two days before Christmas, Brittany and her mom drove down from Boston to New York to see Dr. Anderson. “We met with him for about an hour and it was great,” says Brittany. “One of the things he said to me was, ‘I treat the patient, not the picture.’ It made me feel so at ease. He was so kind mannered.” They scheduled Brittany’s surgery before they left his office.
Dr. Anderson performed Brittany’s surgery a month later. Brittany says, “All of the nurses who were there said that all of Dr. Anderson’s patients do amazingly well. It made me really happy knowing that I had such a great surgeon.”
Brittany’s surgery lasted just under five hours. When she woke up she says her symptoms were gone. “I am not going to sugar coat it. The back of my head was really sore, but I didn’t feel any head pain or head pressure like before. That was immediately gone.”
The next morning Brittany was up walking in the hallway with her mom and two days later she went home.
Four months after her surgery Brittany was still completely symptom free; no more headaches, no tingling, and her balance is perfect. She had even started to practice tumbling again without any problem.
“I am back to the person I was before. Even better than when I was in middle school. It’s been amazing.”
Before her surgery, Brittany did a lot of research on-line and says, ”I did not read one good story. I want someone to read my story and say, ‘This could happen to me—I could be better after this.’”
Originally Published on Jun 2, 2011
Updated on July 19, 2017