Six Surgical Miracles

By Susanna Schrobsdorff, Newsweek Web Exclusive

On June 11, a 6-year-old Texas girl had the entire right half of her brain removed to stop devastating seizures; amazingly, her memory and personality are expected to remain intact. But this is just one of many incredibly delicate and difficult surgeries performed in recent history. From a doctor who operated on himself to surgeons who execute complicated procedures on the tiniest fetuses while they are still in the womb, here are six of the most unusual surgical miracles in modern history.

1. Surgery to Remove Half a Child’s Brain. On June 11, 6-year-old Jessie Hall of Aledo, Texas, had the entire right side of her brain removed by neurosurgeon Ben Carson at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore. The rare procedure is called a hemispherectomy, and though drastic, it was considered the best possible treatment for Jessie, who suffers from Rasmussen’s encephalitis, a progressive degeneration of the cerebral cortex that causes uncontrollable seizures. Though doctors do not fully understand how, the remaining half of the brain in such cases typically takes over many of the functions previously performed by the removed half. Jessie may be permanently paralyzed on her left side, but there is usually no effect on personality or memory. Johns Hopkins does about 12 of these surgeries each year, mostly on children between the ages of 5 and 10. When surgeons were first developing the procedure, they tried to fill the empty cavity on one side of the skull, in one case using sterile ping-pong balls, but they later realized that the brain’s own cerebrospinal fluid eventually fills the space.

2. The Four-Day Operation. From Feb. 4 to Feb. 8, 1951, Gertrude Levandowski of Burnips, Mich., underwent a 96-hour procedure at a Chicago hospital to remove a giant ovarian cyst. It is believed to be the world’s longest surgery. Levandowski weighed 616 pounds before the surgery and had a girth of 9 feet. After the growth was removed, the 58-year-old weighed a more manageable 308 pounds. During the operation, surgeons tapped the cyst to slowly drain the fluid from it, wanting to prevent a rapid drop in pressure that could affect her already strained heart. It took four days to get about 200 pounds of fluid out of her body. They then removed the cyst, which weighed about 150 pounds.

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