09:14am Tuesday 15 October 2019

Brain Surgeon Saves Young Mother from Illness that Threatened his own Mother's Life

“We share an incredible connection,” Dr Whapham said of his patient.

When John Whapham was 12, his mother was diagnosed with a brain disorder called an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). At that time, in the 1980s, a treatment for this illness had not yet been identified.

“The incidence of AVM in America is 0.14 percent, meaning there is 1 case per every 700 persons,” Dr. Whapham explained. An AVM is best described as a tangled mass of blood vessels in the brain.

Today Dr. John Whapham, a neurosurgeon at LUHS and director of its neurointerventional program, routinely repairs AVMs and his patients typically go home the next day. Dr. Whapham recently repaired an AVM in Kimberly Johnson, 29, a Navy veteran, whose story struck a familiar chord with her doctor.

A Tale of Two Mothers

Thirty years ago, Whapham’s mother, Cecelia Whapham, suffered from relentless headaches and other distressing symptoms.

“I felt like I was riding in a boat in rough waters or on a moving train trying to remain upright,” Cecelia Whapham recalled.

But little help could be found. After the family traveled across the country in search of specialists who might treat her, she was advised by one leading hospital to go home and put her affairs in order.

Dr. Whapham recalled that his family went to Toledo, Ohio, so that his mother could receive an MRI, back then a cutting-edge diagnostic test, which led to her diagnosis of AVM.

Back in Detroit, the family found a neurosurgeon who was pioneering new techniques and was willing to operate.

“He told my mother that there were good chances that she might die, be blind and be paralyzed,” Dr. Whapham said. “But our family knew she would die without the surgery, so we felt it was worth a try.”

In an 11-hour procedure, the surgeon removed the entire right portion of Cecelia Whapham’s skull and laboriously repaired the malformation. “The anesthesiologist told me not to worry, that he would do the worrying for me,” she recalled. His mother spent more than three months recovering from the revolutionary procedure.

“We would give my son money to buy comic books or candy and he would spend it on colorful scarves to hide my wounds and scars,” she recalled. “My husband traveled internationally and across the country for business – that was our source of insurance and money — and we had no relatives nearby. John spent his hours at the hospital after school doing his homework and eating most meals in the cafeteria.”

When he wasn’t with his mother, the determined pre-teen would read medical textbooks trying to better understand what was happening to her. This was the time when he felt the first call to become a neurologist.

Now almost three decades later, Cecelia Whapham, a retired secondary English teacher, volunteers her time to Wayne State University School of Medicine. Her son, Dr. Whapham, graduated from the University of Notre Dame and from medical school at the esteemed neuroscience center, Wayne State University.

A Familiar Story

It’s no wonder that Dr. Whapham took a very personal interest in the case of Kimberly Johnson, who was stationed aboard a naval aircraft carrier when she first got the news about her diagnosis.

“This young mother had the same illness that my own mother had,” Dr. Whapham said.

“I learned I had a congenital AVM when I was five months’ pregnant with my first child,” Johnson said. “My parents and my husband had helped me through years of headaches and seizures.”

In January, Dr. Whapham operated on the same condition that had threatened the life of his mother, but now for the Navy veteran. However, the technology and tools for the surgery have vastly improved.

“I use incredibly sophisticated equipment to map the brain’s malformation in advance and then make very small incisions with minimal blood loss,” he explained. “The body is entered through a needle placed in the femoral artery and guided to the area of operation through angiographic mapping techniques. In Johnson’s case, we used neurological glue to seal off her AVM – leaving no trace we were ever there.”

Dr. Whapham discussed how different the surgery is now.

“When my mother had pioneering brain surgery, the surgeon basically took off a large portion of the skull, called a craniotomy, to access the brain. There was significant brain manipulation and blood loss, and it was hit-and-miss unraveling the tangled mass of vessels,” he said.

This is the ninth surgery for Johnson. But it is her first with Dr. Whapham.

“Dr. Whapham took extraordinary care of me; he visited me constantly in the hospital when I was recovering and I know it is because he personally understands what this horrible disease means firsthand,” Johnson said. “I am thinking of his mother this holiday and I want to thank her and tell her that because of her, my children have their mother.”

Based in the western suburbs of Chicago, Loyola University Health System is a quaternary care system with a 61-acre main medical center campus, the 36-acre Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus and 28 primary and specialty care facilities in Cook, Will and DuPage counties. The medical center campus is conveniently located in Maywood, 13 miles west of the Chicago Loop and 8 miles east of Oak Brook, Ill. The heart of the medical center campus, Loyola University Hospital, is a 569-licensed-bed facility. It houses a Level 1 Trauma Center, a Burn Center and the Ronald McDonald® Children’s Hospital of Loyola University Medical Center. Also on campus are the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola Outpatient Center, Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine and Loyola Oral Health Center as well as the LUC Stritch School of Medicine, the LUC Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the Loyola Center for Fitness. Loyola’s Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus in Melrose Park includes the 264-bed community hospital, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness and the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Care Center.

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