Oakland doctors treat girl's mysterious seizures

June 28, 2012 9:50:07 PM PDT
A 2-year-old girl is home with her family after battling a mysterious disease that forced her into a coma. The illness was finally diagnosed by doctors at Children's Hospital in Oakland.

Like most 2 year olds, Gillian Navarroza likes to get her hands on almost anything. It's an amazing accomplishment, considering that just months ago, she could barely control her movements at all.

Gillian suffered seizures that would sometimes last for 30 minutes at a time. The cause was still a mystery when she arrived at Children's Hospital in Oakland from her home in Reno, Nev.

"She was moving incessantly, always arms and legs were twitching, her arms flailing in the air, her muscles never stopped moving," Dr. Ann Petru said.

Petru suspect encephalitis, but was unsure of the variety or cause. She sent a sample taken from a spinal tap to an expert in Spain. In the meantime, doctors also had to deal with Gillian's dangerous seizures.

"One part of her therapy included giving medications to intentionally put her into a coma so that she wouldn't move," Petru said.

Gillian's mom, Darling, never left her bedside as the ordeal stretched on for weeks and months.

Finally, the sample sent to Spain confirmed the diagnosis. Gillian, just 2 years old, had a recently discovered form of encephalitis. So new, it had only been described a few years before she was born.

The encephalitis is known as anti-N.M.D.A.R. Doctors at Children's Hospital say it's caused by dangerous antibodies created by the patient's own immune systems.

"The antibody then crosses into the brain and attacks the brain," Petru said.

While the diagnosis is new, Petru says there are several strategies available to treat it. In Gillian's case, doctors used a process similar to kidney dialysis to remove the antibodies from her blood.

"We've seen her talking, we've seen her vocalizing, even though you can't understand, just waiting for her to say mom and dad," Darling Navarroza said.

Revived from the coma and treated for her symptoms, doctors released Gillian to return home to Reno. She still faces long months of physical therapy, but for her family, finally being able to hear her speak and watch her play marks the end of a painful journey.

"It was tears of joy because I've been waiting for her," Navarroza said.

Petru says health officials have been alerting doctors about Gillian's form of encephalitis and she says they're also studying blood samples from previous encephalitis cases trying to learn more about the disease's history.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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