At just 19 years old, Starrlynn Gamble has dealt with more dangerous surgeries and life-threatening conditions than many older than her could claim, starting the day she was born.
Starrlynn, known as Starr by her family, was born with a congenital heart condition called transposition of the great arteries, which required corrective open heart surgery.
At nearly 3 months old, Starr underwent the procedure at a North Carolina hospital, but she suffered a massive stroke during the operation that left her with epilepsy, developmental delays and physical impairments, including partial paralysis of her right side.
The ensuing years were filled with physical and occupational therapy. Starr wore braces on both legs to help her walk, then was able to remove the left brace as she grew stronger. Although she had limited use of her right arm, Botox injections helped to increase her arm’s mobility.
Yet, while her physical abilities were improving, epilepsy continued to wreak havoc on Starr’s life as her seizures would occur without warning. Despite taking numerous anti-seizure drugs, Starr was having up to eight severe seizures every month.
“She had some really, really bad ones,” said Starr’s mom, Brenda. “We never knew when they were going to happen, and a few times she fell and cracked her head open.”
This continued until nine months ago, when Jason Blatt, M.D., a pediatric neurosurgeon who leads the UF Health pediatric epilepsy surgery program, and Parrish Winesett, M.D., a UF Health pediatric neurologist, suggested Starr receive surgical treatment.
“I was very wary of them cutting my daughter’s head open and going into her brain, but I talked to Starr about it and she told me, ‘If it would help my seizures, why can’t we try?’ and I finally agreed,” Brenda said.
“When Starr and her parents came to meet me, they expressed fear that she would be unable to care for herself and would continue having disabling seizures after her parents passed,” Blatt said. “We had a long talk about her future, and that if they wanted her to have a shot at independent living, I felt that surgery would give her the greatest chance of success.”
Blatt explained the whole surgery in detail before operating on Starr and impressed Brenda with his direct but confident delivery.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Brenda said. “He is just a miraculous doctor. That man has God working through him, there’s no doubt about that.”
The procedure took place over the course of nearly seven hours. Blatt opened Starr’s skull and disconnected the entire left half of her brain, which had been damaged by the stroke in infancy and was felt to be the source of her seizures. The dramatic surgery is known as a “hemispherotomy” and is reserved for epilepsy patients with the most severe, widespread brain damage. This newer procedure offers the benefits of the older hemispherectomy operation with a lower risk of some major complications.
Starr’s procedure was successful, and our UF Health staff had her up and walking the next day. After a 10-day stay in the hospital, she was finally able to go home. At first, Brenda was helping her walk, but after a day at home, Starr was walking independently.
It has been nine months since the procedure, and Starr has not had a single seizure. Brenda is amazed by her overall progress.
“Her cognitive ability has improved immensely and so has her retention level,” Brenda said. “It’s like she’s a different child.”
“This is why I love to do epilepsy surgery,” said Blatt. “Every time I see Starr, I remind her that we did this to give her an independent life, so I give her a ‘homework’ task at each visit. So far she has learned to cook, plans a family dinner each week, does her own laundry and packs her own lunches each day. She has really blossomed.”
Today, Starr enjoys doing her favorite things without the fear of falling and seizing without warning. She sings constantly and loves music. She’s a people-person who loves to play basketball and soccer.
“She’s just one of those kids who loves to help and loves to do things for people,” Brenda said.
Recently, Starr went to senior prom with her boyfriend, someone she’s kept in touch with from kindergarten. It never would have been possible without the surgery performed by Blatt.
“It was just so special,” Brenda said. “It was the first time she’s ever been to a dance with a boy.”