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The University of Chicago Medicine - Comer Children's Hospital

Toddler Granted Hopeful Future After Spinal Cord Surgery

Today, 2-year-old Brinley Olson uses her 50-word vocabulary to sing and chatter playfully. She crawls around her Lombard, Ill., home and cruises through the living room with assistance from a walker, decorated in bows by her 8-year-old sister, Liliana.

However, when Brinley was born in September 2012 at the conclusion of a healthy pregnancy, she had several physical anomalies, including six fingers and toes on each hand and foot, a large head and a tethered spinal cord. Her parents, Chad and Tiffany Olson, waded through an inaccurate neurological diagnosis before coming to the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital in November 2012, ultimately finding David Frim, MD, PhD, chief of the Section of Neurosurgery and Ralph Cannon Professor of Surgery.

A Persistent Problem

Through an MRI, Frim discovered a thoracolumbar syrinx -- a pocket of fluid within Brinley’s spinal cord that began in her mid-back and ended in her lower back. The syrinx was beginning to expand and stretch the spinal cord tissue and may have been responsible for inhibiting physical development and motor skills, though neurosurgical issues are so complex that exact causes are often uncertain.

The neurosurgical team monitored the steadily growing fluid for nearly 18 months before determining it was affecting her development. The likely cause was tightness or tethering in the filum terminale -- the delicate fibrous structure that should loosely connect the spinal cord to the bottom of the spine --causing the fluid to collect in the spinal cord. If this were true, a surgical procedure to remove a small section of the filum terminale would restore the natural looseness of the spinal cord and allow the fluid to flow normally again.

Brinley Olson

Brinley’s surgery took place on May 5, 2014. Frim lifted up the fourth lumbar vertebra to gain access to her spinal cord. He removed a 7 to 8 mm segment of her filum terminale and then fused the vertebrae back into proper position. Upon cutting the cord, Frim observed the upper portion of the spinal cord springing back up toward Brinley’s brain, indicating its relief from overstretching.

A Perspective Shift

Prior to her surgery, the 2-year-old girl could only say two words and had very little mobility. The Olsons endured nearly two years of uncertainty about if Brinley would ever speak or walk, as well as a misdiagnosis at birth of a dire neurological condition. The couple tried to maintain normalcy for their two older children, Liliana and Kallen, 5, while fighting for their baby’s health.

“After Brinley’s birth, it seemed like everything just stopped because we weren’t prepared for this; we had no idea what we were dealing with,” Tiffany said. “Hearing that your baby might not walk or talk was an immediate perspective shift.”

An Explosion of Progress

Within a couple of months of the procedure, Brinley’s parents reported an explosion of new growth and ability, both physically and mentally. The successful procedure was coupled with a successful experience at Comer Children's through the way faculty and staff treated the Olsons during Brinley’s three-day hospital stay.

“Everyone from nurses to food service workers began to recognize us,” Tiffany said, “and they would ask about our daughter.” She was expecting the hospital time to be difficult and ended up being amazed by how at ease they all felt.

“Dr. Frim was so knowledgeable and humble,” she says. “His staff answered all of our questions; I never felt rushed. We even developed a friendship over the few days we were there, and I never would’ve expected the atmosphere in her room to be so jovial.”

A Lifelong Partnership

Brinley will need monitoring throughout her life to ensure fluid doesn’t build up again or cause further problems, as a spinal cord untethering isn’t always a permanent fix. And while they could seek medical care at hospitals closer to home, the Olsons have decided that continuing their relationship with Frim and Comer Children's is the best fit for their family.

“She’s made amazing progress,” Tiffany says. “I’m so grateful to Dr. Frim for the work he did with her. It has truly changed her life and our lives. Her future seems so much more limitless than it did before.”