LEAGUE CITY, Texas (AP) — Clear Springs High School senior Cory Smith, who has spent more than a year recovering from a rare brain infection that nearly killed him, looks forward to playing basketball this fall — hopefully without a helmet.
Cory returned to the basketball court in January for the first time since becoming sick and eventually losing consciousness on Memorial Day 2012. What started as a sinus infection had filled Cory’s brain with fluid and caused life-threatening swelling.
Dr. Roc Chen, the neurosurgeon at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center who saved Cory’s life, told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1eqxX5v) that he previously had treated only two other children since 2008 with similar infections.
Doctors cautioned Cory and his family that he might not regain the brain function he had before he got sick, but the young man was determined to recover.
“I did not want to be disabled,” said Cory, who took the prognosis as a challenge. “I felt like I had to prove them wrong.”
Sinus infections rarely spread into what doctors call the cranial space. Before the use of penicillin, almost all patients died from such infections.
Research shows that such severe bacterial infections typically affect children.
However, diagnosis can be difficult because early symptoms tend to be vague. Researchers recommend CT scans or MRIs for patients with sinus infections and progressive headaches, or with neurological problems such as vision changes or loss of balance. If caused by a brain infection, immediate surgery is recommended, along with antibiotics to guard against residual neurological effects.
On May 28, 2012, Cory’s parents rushed him to a hospital near the family’s home. He was flown to Memorial Hermann after a CT scan and MRI revealed extreme fluid buildup in his brain. Doctors feared it might be blood from a ruptured blood vessel.
Chen said pus spewed out after he opened Cory’s head, removed infected bone from the left side of his skull and cut into his brain to relieve swelling.
Within another hour or so, Cory could have died, Chen said.
Chen said he was fairly certain that Cory, then 16, would survive. However, it was too soon to know whether his brain had been damaged, making his return to advanced placement classes and college basketball recruitment uncertain.
Cory’s mother, Tuesday Smith, recalls Chen’s words to her and her husband, Kevin: “The next 30 minutes are crucial. I’ve done all I can do.
“We didn’t understand until he said that,” she said. “My husband broke down. He said, ‘Lord, not my son. Take me. Take me.’”
After surgery, Cory focused on school, his course work and the basketball team, even though he started rehabilitation with little mobility and had difficulty talking.
Weeks later, his recovery was set back by a second, less invasive sinus infection. Cory required more surgery on his right side to clear the infection, open his sinuses to create more drainage and prevent future infections.
The operations left Cory without skull bone to protect the top of his head. Chen used titanium mesh to cover the small portion of bone taken from Cory’s right side. His left side required a custom-made synthetic implant to replace the infected bone that Chen had removed to save his patient’s life.
After four surgeries, Cory continued rehabilitation, along with home tutoring and sports conditioning.
Throughout his six-month recovery, Cory and his parents asked Chen and Dr. Meilani Mapa, Memorial Hermann’s inpatient rehabilitation medical director, when he could return to school and basketball.
Chen and Mapa were slow to grant their wishes, which frustrated the family. Cory experimented with several helmets before Chen approved one he felt was suitable for Cory to wear for basketball.
“Contact sports are always a bit troublesome,” Chen said. “The brain is always at risk of collapse.”
Mapa didn’t want Cory to rush back to school and suffer failure because of brain fatigue, common after brain injury.
“You always hope for the best, but you plan for the worst,” she said.
Cory missed the start of the season, but reveled in the crowd’s welcome when he returned to the basketball court Jan. 15, 2013.
“They were saying ‘Cor-y, Cor-y,’” he said. “It was the best day.”
A die-hard fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and superstar shooting guard Kobe Bryant, Cory has played basketball since age 5 and aspires to play professionally.
His mother was among the spectators. Unaware that he would play, she became anxious as he joined the game — the first time in eight months.
“I cried the whole time,” she recalled. “It was joy. It was relief. He accomplished what he was trying to do.”
Cory’s teammates surrounded him and rejoiced after he sank a three-pointer as the second quarter ended. It was a shot he’d made before. This time, he wore the concussion helmet required to protect his fragile brain.
“After I hit that shot, I was back to myself,” said Cory, who plays both shooting and point guard. “There’s nowhere to go but up.”
Cory said it’s been difficult playing basketball while wearing a helmet. He hopes Chen will allow him to play without it. But if not, Cory said he’s not going to let it stop him. This summer, he attended Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden’s Basketball ProCamp.
“I’ve just got to keep working harder and harder,” Cory said. “I love this game so much. Nothing is going to stop me from playing the game I love.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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