Ellie's Future Without Epilepsy

By Atrium Health Levine Childrenโ€™s November 21, 2019

Several months after their daughter's birth, Ellie’s parents, Phillip and Christine Sisk, woke up to a strange sound in the middle of the night. Their daughter had a very high fever and was having a seizure. As they tried to bring down Ellie’s fever, they called an ambulance for help.

Devastating Discovery  

Ellie was taken to two hospitals in the span of a week before being airlifted to Levine Children’s Hospital. Doctors there made a life-changing diagnosis: Ellie had epilepsy. 

Doctors initially thought she was having febrile seizures, which can be scary but are usually short-lasting and harmless. Epilepsy, on the other hand, is a neurological disorder that affects nerve cells in the central nervous system and can cause a lifetime of seizures, even loss of consciousness.

Doctors at Levine Children’s Hospital eventually controlled Ellie’s seizures with medications. But with her new epilepsy diagnosis, Ellie’s future was still uncertain. 

Enter the ‘Dynamic Duo’

Ellie was seen by Mark Van Poppel, MD, a pediatric neurosurgeon with Levine Children’s Hospital, and his wife, Kate Van Poppel, MD, a pediatric neurologist and epileptologist. Affectionately known as the “Van Poppel Dynamic Duo,” the husband-and-wife team set out to rid Ellie of her epilepsy.

Ellie’s seizures arose from a limited region of her brain – the temporal lobe. This temporal lobe epilepsy is the most common type of localized epilepsy in adults and children, and scarring of the temporal lobe is the most frequent cause. While most seizure disorders are controlled with medications, temporal lobe epilepsy is potentially treatable with surgery, and Ellie's body resisted medications as she got older. 

“I knew from her very first visit that even if Ellie’s seizures were hard to control, we had the potential to cure her with surgery,” says Dr. Kate Van Poppel. “We noticed scarring in her temporal lobe early on, and then we found other abnormalities. But after about two years, when medications weren’t controlling her seizures, we decided to move forward with surgery.” 

Bright Future Ahead

The Van Poppels, along with multiple specialists and fellow experts, worked for months to prepare for Ellie’s temporal lobectomy – complex surgery to remove the seizure-causing portion of her temporal lobe.

The procedure is one of the most effective treatment options for localized epilepsy – when it’s done right. To avoid disturbing important areas of the brain that control things like language or motor function, doctors use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to create an extremely detailed map all areas of the brain.

The precision paid off, and Ellie’s procedure was a success. 

“The goal of the surgery essentially was to remove all of the tissue in her right temporal lobe that we suspected was causing her seizures, as well as the abnormality we identified on the MRI,” says Dr. Mark Van Poppel, who operated on Ellie. “From a surgical perspective and a functional standpoint, she is the same Ellie she was before surgery as after surgery.”

Seizure-Free Since Surgery

“Since her surgery, Ellie has remained seizure-free! It's been two and a half years,” says Christine. “She's a vibrant, fun-loving 7-year-old and is in 2nd grade. Her new favorite hobby is gymnastics where she has competed in two competitions and has won all-around high-score medals at both."

Ellie’s dad is grateful for his daughter’s regained life, too.

“When she was diagnosed, I remember thinking, ‘I’ll never get to buy her a first car’ – because if you have epilepsy, you can’t drive,” says Phillip. “But now she has that to look forward to and more – so I guess I better start saving for that car.”