Surgery Saved Her Life

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Thomas was just five months old when her mom noticed the baby’s head was swelling.

Cirsten Thomas is the same age her mom was when she brought her into the world 19 years ago. Why is that important to her mom?

“She’s not even supposed to be walking or talking and here she is attending college. Riley surgeons kept her alive,” said Thomas’ mom, LaToya Stewart, who works in the Pathology lab at IU Health.

Thomas was just five months old when her mom noticed the baby’s head was swelling. They were living in Terre Haute at the time, close to family.

“I was a young mom. I just thought she had a big head. I didn’t know any different. You want to think your child is beautiful, perfect in every way,” said Stewart. But when Thomas’ godparents came to visit, they convinced Stewart otherwise. They knew something was wrong. They took Thomas to a hospital in Terre Haute and the next day she was admitted to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health as a pediatric neurology patient.

Doctors diagnosed Thomas with hydrocephalus, also called water on the brain a condition where there is an abnormal build up of cerebrospinal fluid on the brain. Thomas underwent surgery to insert a shunt to drain the fluid.

“It was the most traumatic time of my life. I was basically handing off my newborn and trusting doctors to heal her. My entire family filled the waiting room and we prayed for God to send all his angels. He definitely did,” recalls Stewart.

Her baby was in surgery for three hours.

Stewart still remembers the look on her baby’s face the night before surgery. “She was screaming in pain and the pressure on her brain was making her eyes roll back in her head.” She also remembers her daughter’s face after surgery. “She was smiling and kicking her feet. You could just tell she was relieved.”

Thomas has continued making trips to Riley since 1997 where doctors keep a close watch on the shunt. It’s the original shunt inserted in her five-month-old body.  But for the most part, Thomas is living the life of a typical 19-year-old.

A graduate of Whiteland High School, Thomas played tennis and softball, served as a nursing home volunteer, and graduated with academic honors. She recently completed her freshman year at Vincennes University where she is studying fashion and design. She’s a self-proclaimed shoe fanatic – more than 100 pairs at last count - and has participated in numerous fashion shows, modeling her original designs. She also maintains a part-time job as a Walgreen’s pharmacy tech. She has her sights set on enrolling in the Art Institute of Chicago and pursuing a career marketing her own clothing line.

“Sometimes I forget I even have the condition because I don’t let it get me down. The only thing that keeps reminding me is the doctor’s visit but they’re not so bad,” said Thomas, adding that she loves her pediatric neurosurgeon, Jodi L. Smith.

“She made Cirsten feel comfortable. She was very informative, very patient, down to earth and really took her time explaining things,” said Stewart. “When she turned 18, we were kicked out of Riley and we now see another great neurologist at Methodist, Jason Hill,” said Stewart.

“It’s just amazing to see how far she has come. With her condition she could have lots of neurological issues and delays,” said Stewart. At the age of eight, Thomas began having seizures that caused her to become nauseous. “She didn’t let it slow her down,” said Stewart. “She would continue her homework with a wastebasket by her side.”

Thomas says she is grateful to be alive and as a young adult, she wants to focus on her future.

“I know I’ll be watched and be watching this for the rest of my life, but I don’t want it to slow me down. I don’t want it to define me,” said. And she recently posted on her Facebook page: “I have so many plans and things I want to do in my life, but I have to tell myself, I’m only 19. My time is coming. God is still working on me. I just gotta keep working hard and keep my focus.” 

But there is one reminder that is with her all the time – a tattoo of a ribbon demonstrating support of hydrocephalus awareness. Included in the skin art is a single phrase:   “Imperfection is beauty.”

--By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health. 
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes

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