She was having a seizure—a serious one
On Halloween night in 2005, Courtney McGrath was a healthy second grader running around her neighborhood dressed as a cheerleader. As she, along with her twin brother and parents, were getting ready to go trick or treating, her left arm became numb and tingly. The sensation spread up to her mouth and down through her leg, reaching into her toes until her entire left side was numb. Lasting for roughly fifteen minutes, Courtney would later find out that she was having a seizure—a serious one.
The next morning, Courtney’s parents took her to Seattle Children’s Hospital to undergo diagnostic testing including numerous blood draws, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan and a computed tomography (CT) scan of her brain. “My family felt apprehensive and frightened... Because I was so young, I didn't really have any idea what was going on. I was scared because I didn't know what it all meant,” said Courtney. The images detailed her diagnosis: An arteriovenous malformation (AVM).
Dr. Laligam Sekhar, UW professor and vice-chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery, described the AVM as “a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain”. The brain is composed of an intricate design of arteries—which are responsible for taking oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the brain—and veins, which carry the oxygen-depleted blood back to the lungs and heart. An AVM disrupts this flow of blood, and was responsible for causing miscommunication on the right side of Courtney’s brain.
With the help of Dr. Basavaraj Ghodke, UW director of Interventional Neuroradiology, Courtney received five endovascular embolizations – a treatment technique that involves the injection of a liquid adhesive material, called Onyx, into the AVM in order to block out portions of it. After blood flow was reduced through the AVM, Courtney was told that brain surgery would be the best treatment option to prevent future complications including more seizures, brain damage or a stroke.
"He saved my life, and if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be where I am today”
On December 19, 2005, Dr. Sekhar performed a 16-hour surgery at Harborview Medical Center to correct the tangle of blood vessels in Courtney’s brain. “He [Dr. Sekhar] prayed for me with my mom and dad before I went in for surgery. He took great care and concern for me because I was so young. He saved my life, and if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be where I am today,” said Courtney.
“This operation is among the longest which I have done for AVMs. We had a lot of bleeding from the AVM towards the end of the surgery. We did an angiogram [X-ray photograph of blood vessels] during the surgery, which showed us that we had a small piece of AVM left behind. I went back in to remove it, and all of the bleeding stopped. I felt that the prayer gave me and my team special strength to keep going and finish our task successfully. The AVM was removed and Courtney was totally cured,” Dr. Sekhar said.
Before surgery Courtney was involved in dance, basketball and cheer, but the lasting effects of the removed AVM caused her left side to be much weaker than her right. It remained challenging to use her right arm and hand without assistance, so she continued her path to recovery through neuro-rehabilitation and physical therapy until she was in 8th grade.
She tried out for the cheer team and overcame her biggest fear of getting out in front of people.
The limitations that she felt due to her left-side weakness challenged her confidence. “I had a hard time dealing with no longer being normal and doing what I loved” said Courtney.
But, this didn’t stop her. During her junior year in high school, Courtney decided not to let anything get in her way. She tried out for the cheer team and overcame her biggest fear of getting out in front of people. She made the cheer team and pushed past any weakness she once felt to tackle another sport: Barrel racing. She has ridden and shown horses for over 5 years, and has discovered a passion for competitively racing horses.
With a note of deep gratitude to Dr. Sekhar, Courtney graduated from high school in June of this year. She has plans to attend Everett Community College for one to two years with hopes to transfer to Central Washington University to major in Occupational or Speech Therapy. She also intends to join the equestrian and rodeo sports club. Although the journey hasn’t been easy, Courtney continues to push and strive to reach her dream to one day be in the rodeo.