Miracle On The Court: Playing With Part Of His Brain Removed
Cathedral High School basketball standout James Franklin, Jr., made the brave and scary decision last month to undergo a 16-hour brain surgery to try to rid his body of those awful seizures.
The basketball game had just started, maybe 90 seconds in. James Franklin, Jr., was running down the court when the dread set in.
He felt the tingling in his face and the numbness in his hand. He started motioning for his coach. James knew what was coming. So did his dad, who was in the stands.
James Franklin, Sr., rushed down through the bleachers to the court and got there just in time -- to catch James before he hit the ground.
What happened next is something that’s happened far too often in James’ life. He lay on the sidelines, his eyes rolling back in his head, his body convulsing.
This was one of the epileptic seizures James has had since birth. The seizures he battled through and prevailed -- to be a standout basketball player at Cathedral High School.
But as strong and funny and lighthearted as James has always tried to be about his medical lot in life, all he ever really wanted was for the seizures to disappear.
Last month, 17-year-old James made the brave and scary decision to undergo a 16-hour brain surgery to try to rid his body of those awful seizures.
Inside Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, Jodi Smith, M.D., a pediatric neurosurgeon, spent eight hours on two separate days carefully removing the part of James’ brain (the seizure focus) where his seizures occur.
She knew very well what she was dealing with. And just how much this could mean for the teenage athlete.
“To James, basketball is his whole world. It’s his life,” says Dr. Smith. “There is a lot riding on this thing. But if we were right and we could get the seizure focus out, that’s a game changer.”
No one knows exactly when the stroke happened. But Tamieka Franklin thinks her son had the stroke at birth.
“Because when he came out, he was screaming like no other,” says Tamieka, who has three other children. “I was like, ‘Something’s not right. I’ve had my other babies and they didn’t scream like this.’”
At first, nurses and doctors assured her that James, a plump 8 pounds 5 ounces, was healthy and fine. But as Tamieka was struggling to get James to nurse, a lactation consultant rubbed his head.
She felt his soft spot bulging and pulsing. “Can I see him?” she asked.
Tamieka knew then. Something was terribly wrong. They told her James was having seizures, that he had suffered a stroke. Tamieka and James Sr. were told their son might not make it through the night.
But James did. And after two years of occupational and physical therapy, it looked like all the scary stuff was over.
James picked up a basketball around 3 years old and never looked back. He started playing in leagues at 4. The seizures were no longer.
But then, in seventh grade, James was found on the playground unresponsive and the seizures started coming back. His freshman year of high school, he was having two or three seizures a day five times a month.
And then in January, his sophomore year at Cathedral, James had that first seizure on the court. Tamieka started to think her “miracle son” would never be seizure free.
He had already tried nine different medications. None had worked. She and James, Sr., decided to take their son to Riley.
As he stood dribbling and juggling in physical therapy at Riley last week, just a month after his brain surgery, James talked about what it feels like to be seizure free.
“Very happy,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about anything when I go out with friends. I can do anything I want.”
And, of course, what he wants is to play basketball without fear of collapsing on the court.
“He’s such a good basketball player,” says Dr. Smith. “This kid’s got a lot of potential, a super lot of potential.”
She kept that in mind as she readied for James’ operation, a surgery that came with a lot of preparation.
There was the first phase of workup for James, a battery of neurology tests, video EEGs, scans, MRIs and monitoring. From that, Dr. Smith and her team determined that the seizures were happening in James’ brain near where he’d had his stroke as a baby.
“It suggested the correct hemisphere where we needed to be,” Dr. Smith says. “But it didn’t really localize it.”
So, the team moved on to a second phase of testing. “That was a big deal,” she says.
Dr. Smith made a big incision in James’ head, took out bone and laid a grid of 64 electrodes on his brain. That grid would be the map. For a week, James’ brain was monitored to see where the seizures were coming from.
She and Kelly Kremer, M.D., a pediatric neurologist, pinpointed the area. Dr. Smith kept in mind to leave the motor cortex part of his brain alone.
“Before surgery, his mom said, ‘I don’t care about how good he is at basketball,’” Dr. Smith says. “‘I just want him to be OK and go to college and be able to have a great life.’”
But Dr. Smith knew how important basketball was to James. And she wanted to make sure she did everything in her power to make sure he could play it again, just as good as he always had.
“Go pro,” James says, when asked what his basketball dreams are. Yes. He’s already back on the court.
Dr. Smith has cleared James to practice. He started that two weeks ago and played his first full scrimmage this week.
“James Franklin continues to be an example of strength, determination and how to overcome adversity for all ages,” Cathedral coach Jason Delaney says of his star point guard.
Colleges have already come calling, IUPUI, Ball State University and others. But James’ dream is to play at the University of Kentucky.
Right now, James is in therapy at Riley once a week. His left side was weak after surgery. When Riley physical therapist Sarah Johnson worked on juggling two balls with James the first time, he could only do it twice.
This week, he did it at least 20 times in a row. She is also working with James on visual memory and coordination.
“It’s helpful to have athletes because you give them a goal and they want to reach that goal,” Johnson says. “He gets better across sessions and during each session. It’s pretty amazing how the brain is able to adapt to do different things just with repetition.”
And since the surgery, James hasn’t had one seizure. With the trauma to the brain, doctors said he might have one or two initially.
“Not one,” Tamieka says. “It’s amazing.”
Dr. Smith is thrilled with the outcome – and plans to make it to a basketball game this season to watch James play.
“That case went about as well as it could have gone,” Dr. Smith says.