A surgeon friend of mine recently told me a story about a little girl who wandered into the territory of some pit bulls. These dogs were tied up with leashes in the neighbor’s back yard – specifically because they couldn’t be trusted to run loose near children. Tragically, the two year old wandered within their grasp after slipping through a protective kiddie gate and out of the house.
The dogs attacked her viciously, dragging her deeper within their territory and attempted to eat her alive. They tore off both her ears and shredded her chest and limbs. By the time she was discovered she was near death. The girl was rushed to the nearest trauma center – where my friend took her to the OR immediately. He spent the entire night putting the pieces back together, as it were.
A couple of days later, my astute friend noticed her having problems turning her head towards her mothers’ spoon during meal times. That observation triggered him to test her vision – and low and behold the girl was completely blind. A brain CT confirmed the clinical team’s worst fears: at some point during her resuscitation, the girl had a massive stroke, and her entire occipital lobe (the back of the brain) was damaged.
Wondering if there was anything he could do to help the girl, and devastated by what he assumed was a grave prognosis (a lifetime of blindness), my friend called a neuro-ophthalmologist for advice. Much to his amazement, the neurologist told him that her visual deficits were likely to resolve completely, because her brain would simply adapt. Children at very young ages can recover from otherwise devastating strokes because of neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to rewire itself, and recruit healthy neurons to take over for damaged tissue.
True to the neurologist’s predictions, the little girl regained her site within a year. Fortunately, her body healed extremely well too – and despite thousands of stitches, her scarring turned out to be quite minimal. Today it’s hard to tell that she’s had surgery at all.
This story holds special interest to me, as I too was mauled by a dog when I was a little girl. Although I was bitten in the face, and nearly lost my left eye, I can’t remember the last person who noticed my scars or asked about them. They simply faded with time.
The extraordinary healing powers of young tissue cannot be matched in adulthood. However, some degree of neuroplasticity lives on in each of us, offering hope for brain rehabilitation for everyone – from the forgetful to those with major impairments.
Whether you (or a loved one) have internal or external scars – healing is always possible.