By Tally Botzer
A month after her graduation from the University of Mary Washington this May, Senior Anna Deaton will be shaving her head in preparation for neurosurgery.
Deaton, a psychology major, was diagnosed in January with a rare and potentially fatal malformation that causes the brain to slip down into the spinal column.
The malformation is called a Chiari Malformation, named after the German pathologist who studied the abnormality.
“It’s basically caused by my skull not being big enough to house my brain,” Deaton said.
The lack of space in the skull causes part of the brain to “fall down” into the spine, where there should be a gap.
Without surgery, people with the malformation will develop water on the brain, an accumulation of fluid in the cranial cavity that can eventually lead to death.
Deaton, who transferred to UMW from Virginia Wesleyan after her freshman year, said that the road to an accurate diagnosis was a difficult one.
She began feeling symptoms—severe pain in her neck and shoulders—in high school, originally thinking it was a swimming injury.
Last summer her symptoms grew worse, with pain so severe she sometimes vomited. The family physician diagnosed her with social anxiety disorder and prescribed antidepressants.
Frustrated, Deaton made an appointment with a psychologist.
“After talking for her for two minutes, she said, ‘What the hell are you doing on antidepressants?’” Deaton said.
Deaton experienced intense side effects coming off the antidepressants.
“It was a shit show,” Deaton said.
She describes the side effects as similar to those that cocaine addicts experience. She had to go back on the medication and gradually wean herself off.
After mentioning to her family physician that her hands sometimes tingled, he referred her to a neurologist, who performed a carpal tunnel test, which came back negative.
The neurologist diagnosed Deaton with a pinched nerve and ordered an MRI, a detailed magnetic scan of her upper body.
After conducting the MRI, a radiologist diagnosed Deaton with Chiari II Malformation. The malformation prohibits spinal fluid from moving between the spinal column and the brain.
“If you looked at my MRI, you could see my cerebellum, and it just looked odd,” Deaton said.
A neurosurgeon told Deaton that surgery would be necessary to correct the malformation, and a second opinion confirmed the necessity. They set the date for early summer, June 20.
“I started having symptoms when I was 14,” she said. “I’m 21 now; it’s just getting to the point where it hinders my life, so I need surgery.”
The neurosurgery is high risk because it is in a very sensitive area of the body.
However, Deaton said the chances of complications arising are less than one percent, while the chances of surgery fixing the problem are over 90 percent.
The recovery time can last anywhere from six weeks to four months.
According to Deaton, her seven month quest for a diagnosis was actually comparatively short. Others with the malformation can go through years of misdiagnoses.
Deaton has some apprehension concerning the risky surgery, and said that the diagnosis was bittersweet.
“I was so happy to get a diagnosis and not be called crazy,” she said. “But then you have to olves removing the portion of the skull that is causing the brain to slip into the spinal column and placing cadaver tissue where the skull was removed.
As the body heals itself, the cerebellum can move out of the spinal column because the cadaver tissue is more flexible for a few weeks before it hardens.
“It kind of gets sucked back in almost as if a vacuum is created,” Deaton said of her cerebellum.
For now, Deaton is stuck on the sideline during her Ultimate Frisbee games. She has played on UMW’s women’s Ultimate Frisbee team for almost two years.
“It does suck that I can’t play, but I always look on the bright side,” she said. Deaton still attends practice and runs with the team.
While waiting for surgery in June, Deaton is growing her hair out to donate after she buzzes it all off.
To take her mind off of the surgery, Deaton and her roommates are planning a Chiari Party to celebrate the end of the semester.
“I’ve decided to celebrate it,” she said. “Instead of worrying about it.”