GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - Imagine being on the operating table awake and alert as doctors perform surgery on your brain. It’s not just something you see on TV. It’s an actual surgery known as an awake craniotomy.
Only a handful of hospitals across the country, including Memorial Hospital in Gulfport, specialize in awake brain surgery.
For Kaitlin Grelle, the rare and delicate operation saved her life. It all started after a seizure caused her life to come to an abrupt halt last July.
“I had no idea. I couldn’t remember for a little bit, and then my husband took me to the hospital,” she recalled.
It was a scary experience for the 23-year-old.
“It was the last day of summer, and it just like, everything went wrong,” she said. “I was like oh my gosh, and it just happened so fast.”
Doctors discovered a vascular malformation on Grelle’s brain.
“You see this kind of a Y, like a little snowman here in the center of the brain,” said Dr. Miguel Melgar, pointing to one of Grelle’s brain scans. “This is the malformation.”
Melgar, who is a neurosurgeon at Memorial, said because of where the malformation was, the best option to remove it was an unconventional procedure. Grelle needed to be awake during the surgery.
“It’s like trying to core an apple,” explained the surgeon. “In order to take the core, you need to go through the apple...(If that was done), we can injure her, damage her brain in order to get to the center of the brain. But we know pathways, how to get there, by mapping and doing an awake craniotomy.”
During part of the surgery, Grelle was alert, talking and moving, which let Dr. Melgar know if he was safely performing the operation as he worked around parts of the brain that control things like speech and fine motor skills.
“We have a team of neuropsychologists and people with expertise in speech therapy,” he said. “They are testing the patient as we’re doing surgery and, at the same time, we’re testing the motor power, working with the left side of the brain constantly with the patient. For example, flexing and extending the arm and the leg. As soon as we see some abnormality, we stop.”
Patients undergoing awake brain surgery don’t feel any pain because the brain itself doesn’t have any pain receptors.
“I asked them to move the TV screen so I could watch them in my brain while they were doing the surgery, but they were asking me about my dogs and telling me dad jokes,” recalled Grelle. “It was funny.”
Just weeks later, life is starting to returning to normal for Grelle. She’s looking forward to restarting her career in marketing and just enjoying each day. She also now treasures every second, even simple moments like walks on the beach with her husband.
Dr. Melgar said Grelle is making good progress since her surgery. Her brain is now healing and her scar proudly tells a story of survival and gratitude.
“I am so happy,” said Grelle. “(Dr. Melgar) saved my life. Without him...I am just forever thankful for him.”