A Texas medical school student has survived six brain surgeries and a stroke while studying to become a doctor.
Claudia Martinez will graduate from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in 2020, knowing full well what it’s like to be a patient in need of serious medical attention.
Martinez has what is called Chiari Malformation, where brain tissue extends into the spinal cord due to a malformed or abnormally small skull, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
It has required six surgeries so far, and Martinez has had to relearn how to perform simple tasks like brushing her teeth, getting dressed by herself and walking.
Despite wanting to be a neurosurgeon since the age of eight and receiving the academic scores to do so, her illness has left her without the required dexterity with her hands, so she’s now focused on practicing in the area of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) and Neurology.
She’s shared her journey over social media in an effort to raise awareness about ‘invisible illnesses’ like hers, and become an inspiration to many in the process.
At the age of 19 while a student at the University of Houston in 2012, Martinez began suffering severe headaches that escalated into sensory issues, including numbness, tingling and tremors, with blurry vision, ataxia, blackouts, seizures and difficulty swallowing, according to a video shared on her YouTube page documenting her journey.
After undergoing an MRI, Martinez was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation and Syringomyelia.
Syringomyelia is a ‘disorder in which a fluid-filled cyst (called a syrinx) forms within the spinal cord,’ according to NINDS.
‘This syrinx can get bigger and elongate over time, damaging the spinal cord and compressing and injuring the nerve fibers that carry information to the brain and from the brain to the rest of the body.’
Martinez went under the knife one week later, as she was told if she waited she would risk paralysis.
Since then, she’s had five more surgeries, including one where she suffered a stroke and woke up from the operation unable to move from the neck down.
She often shares photos from her hospitalizations. In one post she detailed how she had to undergo an extremely risk experimental procedure, calling it her ‘only hope.’
It was during this surgery that she suffered the stroke, in February of 2017.
One year later, she wrote, ‘This past year has been the hardest year of my life both mentally and physically, but I thank God each day for the abundance of blessings. The progress I’ve made is unbelievable and each day I thank God for placing the most amazing pediatric neurosurgeon in my life and for my incredible physicians, nurses, PT/OTs at TIRR Memorial Hermann.’
Since then she’s battled her way back from that setback, throughout a time where she was also on a feeding tube for three years, because her condition has left her stomach partially paralyzed.
‘All I wanted for Christmas was the ability to eventually eat one day, I think I might just get that [heart emoji]’ she wrote with one post showing tubes entering her stomach.
By March 31, she had gotten her wish and can now eat enough solid good to go off the feeding tube, as long as she supplements with liquid calories.
She recently shared a story about a child with a feeding tube just like hers, and how showing him that others had it too had helped the boy, according to this mother, who said he had been bullied for being different.
‘Eventually I hope we can normalize medical devices in society so no child or even adult feels like they don’t belong,’ Martinez said.
‘As medicine advances so does the ability to live outside the hospital with illness that otherwise would keep us admitted. To that little kid out there, I’m sorry I didn’t have the words to help you, but I’m here trying to raise awareness and you, young man, are too. Without even knowing you’re helping so many other kids out there.’
Martinez has just finished her third year at UTHealth in Houston.
In 2020, eight years after her diagnosis and first surgery, she’ll have earned her medical degree.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Stephanie Haney
WHAT IS CHIARI MALFORMATION?
Chiari malformation occurs when the brain tissue extends into the spinal canal. This can happen if the skull is abnormally small or misshapen, which presses the brain downwards.
The Brain & Spine Foundation in the UK and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in the US both estimate one in every 1,000 people are born with the condition.
It may actually be more common due to not all sufferers developing symptoms.
There are three types of chiari malformation:
Type I – occurs as the skull and brain are growing. Symptoms usually appear in late childhood or early adulthood and include neck pain, poor balance, co-ordination difficulties, numbness, dizziness and impaired vision
Type II – is present at birth and related to spina bifida. Occurs when more of the brain tissue extends into the spinal cord than in Type I. Symptoms may include changes in breathing patterns, swallowing problems, arm weakness and quick downward eye movements
Type III – is present at birth and the rarest form of chiari malformation. Occurs when a portion of the lower part of the brain extends through an abnormal opening in the back of the skull. Has a high mortality rate and can cause brain damage
Although not usually considered life-threatening, chiari malformation may be fatal if a patient’s breathing or swallowing is affected.
It can also lead to hydrocephalus – the build-up of cerebral spinal fluid in the brain – which can be deadly if untreated.
Treatment may not be necessary if symptoms are mild with just regular check-ups and MRI scans being required.
However, surgery can be carried out to remove a small section of bone at the back of the skull. This relieves pressure by giving the brain more room.
The procedure runs the risk of infections, fluid in the brain and spinal cord leaking. Although the operation helps to relieve symptoms it cannot cure nerve damage that has already occurred.
SOURCE: Mayo Clinic