Teenage Dancer Affected by Chiari Malformation

by Danielle Bradshaw from In The Cloud Copy

Elaina Pechota loves to dance. Back in 2018, however, the teen had a fall during one of her classes, and her entire life changed immediately afterward.

Chiari and Syringomyelia: What are They?

At 15-years-old, Elaina was diagnosed with Chiari malformation, a condition that results in part of the brain – the cerebellar tonsils – pushing into an opening inside of the spinal canal; it’s caused when part of the patient’s skull is smaller than normal or misshapen. Symptoms can include headaches, neck pain, and muscle weakness in the hands and arms.

She was also diagnosed with syringomyelia, which is the formation of either a space (cavity) or cyst inside of the spinal cord. This can cause spinal damage, feelings of weakness, headaches, stiffness, paralysis, and loss of feeling.

All throughout her elementary school years, Elaina did suffer many of the aforementioned symptoms of both conditions, particularly headaches and numbness, as well as fatigue. After the concussion, however, is when things began to get significantly worse.

Talking About the Fall

Heidi – Elaina’s mom – says that back in April 2018 when her daughter was practicing for a routine that she and her company were going to perform with the Cadillac Symphony Orchestra, she (Elaina) fell. Heidi was told about the incident when she went to get her daughter from rehearsal.

Elaina had hit both her chin and elbow and her face was numb on the left side. Heidi says that her daughter was unable to open her mouth but that she danced that weekend anyway. Elaina was suffering from dizziness and on Sunday night, she was feeling nauseated and had to get up to vomit. It was at that point that the parents decided that a hospital trip was needed.

Elaina herself says that she fell when she’d been running across the stage for her part of their routine and “tripped on nothing.” Her chin bounced off the floor and at that very instant, the left side of her face lost feeling. She got up and soldiered on though, continuing to dance. She does say that her instructors asked her if she was okay, however.

First Trip to the Hospital: No Relief

Once Elaina and her parents got to the hospital, she was required to stay for one night, followed by a week at home of “cognitive rest”; she was unable to watch TV, use her phone, the computer, or read – no stimulus of either the mental or physical sort.

After the concussion, Elaina started to suffer from dizziness, nausea, visual problems, balance issues, problems concentrating, and hiccupping that could last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Her headaches began to last longer than usual, her schoolwork became more difficult to do, and she got fatigued easily.

Second Trip to the Hospital: Getting Answers

When December rolled around, Elaina went in for an MRI, and it was here that she was first diagnosed. To specify, the 15-year-old was told that she had Type I Chiari, which is one of the five types, numbered 0 through 4. Type I Chiari malformation happens when the cerebellar tonsils inhibit proper movement of the cerebrospinal fluid in the skull and spine.

Third Trip to the Hospital: More Answers

The Pechotas asked for a spinal MRI and it was found that Elaina had a build-up of spinal fluid as a result of her Chiari malformation. This accumulation of fluid is called a syrinx. In other words, it was found that Elaina also had syringomyelia.

It was here that the doctors decided to do a bone only decompression to alleviate both the Chiari and syrinx. This involves removing a portion of the back of her skull and part of the C1 vertebrae.

A Tale of Two Surgeries

Elaina had the bone only decompression surgery done on March 22, 2019. It was about a 3 and a half hour operation, and she was able to go home after staying at the hospital overnight. Elaina did begin to improve despite the rough first few days and was even able to go back to school.

She still suffered many of her previous symptoms though and was having problems with her dancing; she couldn’t remember routines, had poor balance and back and neck pain, and numbness in the arms.

At her October six-month check-up, Elaina had an MRI done that showed that the syrinx was still the same as before. It could take up to a year for the syrinx to dissipate, so they decided to check again in another six months. When May rolled around, it was discovered that the syrinx was still there, so Elaina had another surgery scheduled for July 1.

This surgery lasted for seven hours and involved removing more bone, enlarging the dura – a covering of sorts, over the brain – with a patch, cauterizing the cerebral tonsils, and raising them to remove them from the cavity in the spine. Elaina had to stay in the ICU for the first night to ensure that there was no spinal fluid leakage. She was then able to stay in a normal room and was able to go home after the third day.

After the surgery, Elaina went back into the hospital on July 21 so doctors could see how well she was healing. After being told that her progress looked good, she had an MRI scheduled for some time in November. It is hoped that the syrinx will have shrunken by then.

To learn more about Elaina’s story, click here.

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