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The University of Chicago Medicine - Comer Children's Hospital

'A Different Kid Now'

For nine years, William Allan Sterling rode a scary roller coaster of epileptic seizures that left him confined to a wheelchair and barely able to walk or talk. Now, nine months after starting a medical diet prescribed by Chalongchai Phitsanuwong, MD, William is seizure-free and enjoying a significantly better quality of life. 

“I'm getting to know my son for the first time,” said his mom, Lori Tucker.

Born prematurely at 26 weeks with cerebral palsy, William’s seizures started when he was three months old, gradually increasing until they occurred constantly day and night. A pediatric neurologist prescribed several anti-seizure medications, but none seemed to work. Surgery was out of the question because the boy’s seizures were not localized to a particular area of his brain.

In December 2014, Tucker learned about the ketogenic diet and was referred to Phitsanuwong, a pediatric neurologist and epileptologist specially trained in this diet. He recently had joined the Level 4 Pediatric Epilepsy Center at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital -- now one of only three hospitals in Illinois offering the ketogenic diet for children. William became Phitsanuwong's first patient at Comer Children's to try this medical diet.

The ketogenic diet consists of a high percentage of calories from fat, with an adequate amount of protein and a low percentage of carbohydrate intake. The diet is customized to each child’s calorie requirement and nutritional status.

To begin the diet, William stayed in the hospital for five days in January 2015 under the care of Phitsanuwong, as well as a ketogenic dietitian, pediatric neurology nurses, a social worker and a case manager. His seizures were reduced by 50 percent by the end of the week, and disappeared completely after six weeks on the diet.

Jatonne Sterling, Abby Cusack, RN, BSN, William Sterling, Lori Tucker, and Chalongchai Phitsanuwong, MD

Left to right: Jatonne Sterling (brother), Abby Cusack, RN, BSN, William Sterling, Lori Tucker, and Chalongchai Phitsanuwong, MD

Today, he is out of the wheelchair for increasing periods of time and is able to walk, run, and speak in sentences. “William’s a different kid now,” Tucker said. “He’s happy, energetic and wants to do everything on his own. His goal is to play baseball, just like his older brother. He has come so far in such a short time under the diet.”

“What keeps me going is watching how this diet can change lives.”

Experts do not fully understand how the ketogenic diet controls seizures. “We do know the diet’s high-fat, low-carbohydrate content causes the production of ketone bodies,” said Dr. Phitsanuwong. “The ketone bodies are believed to have an anti-seizure effect.”

The physician reports the majority of his patients currently on the ketogenic diet have had at least a 50 percent reduction in seizure frequency. Despite the effectiveness and a relatively low occurrence of serious side effects, Phitsanuwong cautions parents not to start a child on this medical diet without a neurologist’s specific recommendation, instruction and supervision.

“What keeps me going is watching how this diet can change lives,” Phitsanuwong said. “It’s exciting to see William do things he couldn’t do before.”