Park City child hits the slopes with surgeon who saved his life as an infant (w/video)
On the surface, Thomas Summers is just like any other 8-year-old living in Park City.
Thomas loves playing outside with his older brother, Forest, or watching basketball and football on TV. He can navigate the ski resorts by himself and has conquered almost every intermediate run at Park City Mountain Resort. He’s a little shy. But, his parents, Chris and Stuart Summers, say he loves everyone from the bottom of his heart.
But in one important way, Thomas is unlike his peers. He is a survivor of a hemispherectomy, making everything he’s accomplished even more incredible in the eyes of his parents.
When Thomas was just 7 weeks old, doctors disconnected the left portion of his brain from the right to stop him from seizing. Chris and Stuart didn’t know at the time if he would be able to walk, talk or even have the capacity to love after undergoing the rare, complicated procedure.
“It was very scary,” Chris said. “I think for us, we didn’t realize he could live without half a brain. We thought he would be in bed for the rest of his life. We had a lot of questions. But, of course, he has turned out fabulous.”
Thomas has exceeded everyone’s expectations, especially since the family moved from Birmingham, Alabama, to Park City a couple of years ago.
He regularly undergoes physical and occupational therapy. But, Chris and Stuart largely attribute his progress to the National Ability Center, which has helped him become a “remarkable skier.” The nonprofit organization provides recreational activities and educational programs for people with disabilities.
Thomas had a unique opportunity to show off his skiing on Thursday at Park City Mountain Resort for the man his parents credit with saving his life: Dr. Jeffrey Blount, a pediatric epilepsy and neurosurgeon based in Birmingham.
The Summers have casually stayed in touch with Blount over the last eight years, but it was Blount who initiated the reunion. He said he would see Thomas in clinic about once a year and would keep tabs on him periodically through Facebook.
“When I started seeing pictures of him skiing, I sent Stuart a message and said, ‘Let’s ski together,'” he said. Blount regularly visits Park City in the winter.
Chris and Stuart first noticed something was off with Thomas as an infant when he started having spasms. When they mentioned it to their pediatrician, an electroencephalogram was immediately ordered followed by an MRI. The results showed the left hemisphere of his brain had malformed and was causing erratic seizure activity. A hemispherectomy, or disconnection of certain tissues of the brain, was the only way to treat it.
Blount said Thomas’ entire brain remains intact, it is just “electrically disconnected.” In the past, a portion of the brain would have been removed in a hemispherectomy.
“It’s like if you are in a room and the telephone won’t stop ringing. You can either throw the phone out of the room or unplug it,” he said. “The concept is you disconnect it while leaving as much tissue in place as possible.”
Epilepsy is very common, but it is a terrible illness, Blount said. He said it can be controlled with medicine for a majority of children who suffer from it. However, surgery is also a viable option for those who aren’t helped by medicine. It can be a turning point for families.
“His (Thomas) accomplishments are an order of magnitude beyond what we talk about,” he said. “The things we are trying to do (with surgery) is assure the child attains development capabilities and assure the child attains the capability to learn properly. That is not to say all kids who have this surgery do poorly because many do well. But, Thomas is really pushing the boundaries and there are other Thomases out there.”
When the Summers met with Blount on Thursday before hitting the slopes, hugs were shared all around.
“The two biggest heroes in my life are standing right here,” Stuart said while pointing to Thomas and Blount. “This guy (Thomas) for his attitude and determination for what he is able to accomplish and him (Blount) for saving his life.”
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