Originally created 07/14/97

Jackie's miracle



SHARON, S.C. (AP) - In 1994, 11-year-old Jackie Stearns had the mentality of an infant. She did not read or write and had to wear diapers. A big white helmet protected her head from frequent, violent seizures.

Today, Jackie is a typical 13-year old preparing to enter the seventh grade and anxiously waiting for a driver's license. The only noticeable evidence of the teen-ager's sickly childhood is a partially paralyzed right arm, a limp and a slight speech impediment.

In July 1995, Jackie, who used to live in Sharon with her grandmother, had the left hemisphere of her brain removed, a procedure that changed her life forever.

"From that day until now she hasn't taken any medication or worn a helmet," said Flora Dover, Jackie's grandmother. "She writes, she reads and she's excellent in math. She started writing with her left hand just like she was born that way."

Jackie has Rasmussen's encephalitis, a rare disease that strikes otherwise healthy children between 4 and 10 years old. Researchers do not know much about the disease, but they hypothesize that it is caused by antibodies in the children's blood.

Seizures start intermittently and increase over time. The children gradually lose the abilities controlled by the affected area of their brain.

Jackie's seizures started when she was 6 years old. By age 11, she was having as many as 15 of the violent attacks a day. The young girl, who at the time lived with her grandmother in Sharon, rarely talked, smiled or played; the seizures left her exhausted.

These days Jackie spends her time swimming, playing on a swing and talking about boys and the convertible she'll someday drive.

"I'm fine," she replies when asked how she feels. "What's your name? Will I be in the paper?" the curious teen asks in turn.

Before sending Jackie to Johns Hopkins University for brain surgery, doctors tried numerous experimental treatments.

With one procedure, which reduced the seizures to three or four a day for a time, doctors took Jackie's blood and removed all the antibodies before replacing it.

After about two months, Jackie's body began making the antibodies faster than they could be removed. The treatment had to be stopped.

"You try whatever you can in terms of immune suppression before surgery," said Dr. Darrell Lewis, a pediatric neurologist at Duke University Medical Center, who said removing part of a brain causes a stroke. "Intellectually, the children are better off after the operation."

Doctors said brain surgery, which was considered a last resort, could leave Jackie paralyzed on her right side and without the ability to speak. They knew, however, that it would stop the seizures.

After the surgery, Jackie went to live with her mother in Knoxville, Tenn. She keeps in touch with her grandmother through frequent phone calls and visits, and writes letters to her father who lives in Washington state.

Last week she visited Dover in Sharon.

"I can write in cursive to my dad," she said. "I am best at math and reading."

Jackie says she doesn't remember the helmet, being sick or having seizures. She does recall being in the hospital for therapy after her surgery.

"We had parties sometimes," she said about her hospital stay in Baltimore.

Jackie ties her own shoes, using her teeth instead of her right hand to hold the bow.

"The only thing she can't do is cut meat," Dover said. "She does everything for herself just like you or me."

Lewis said Jackie may find later in life that she has some learning disabilities, but "in all likelihood will be just fine."