Dr. T.S. Park Performs 2,000th Rhizotomy for Cerebral Palsy
“I wanna dance.”
That’s Sophie Nugent’s lifelong dream, according to her mom, Debbie.
“She’s going to be a dancer.”
Ballet dancers and fairy princesses hold a special place in many young girls’ hearts, so such an ambition doesn’t seem unusual for the five-year-old from West Sussex, England. In fact, by this age, many have already enrolled in their first dance classes.
But for Sophie, learning to dance seemed as improbable as coming face-to-face with a real-life fairy princess. Sophie has cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder with many symptoms, including impaired motor function and mobility.
“She’s got no balance,” says Debbie. “She can’t stand on her own.”
Sophie has used both a wheelchair and a walking frame to assist her as needed, but as her body continues to deteriorate under the disease, her parents believe she would eventually need a full-time wheelchair to support her weight.
There is no cure for cerebral palsy and, until just a few months ago, the Nugents didn’t realize any options existed for a child like Sophie, with muscle stiffness, or spasticity, caused by the disease.
Then they saw a news story about a child from the UK who had traveled to St. Louis Children’s Hospital for a unique procedure to reduce spasticity and improve the child’s ability to move – to walk.
During the procedure, called selective dorsal rhizotomy (SDR), chief neurosurgeon Dr. T. S. Park identifies and cuts nerve roots within the spine that cause the spasticity, resulting in smoother, freer movements.
“What it does is give them the opportunity to do more activities,” says Dr. Park, who is the only neurosurgeon in the world to have refined the SDR technique by reducing the amount of spine removed during the operation.
“One of the problems with the old procedure was they had to remove a lot of bones from the spine, which led to spine and back problems,” says Dr. Park. “My technique only requires removing one vertebra and as a result we prevent spine problems.”
At the time, many within the medical community were not convinced. The procedure was considered ‘experimental,’ as data did not yet exist to support its safety and efficacy.
“We went through a lot, published a lot of papers,” says Dr. Park. “And over time, parents became very active supporters.”
More poignant than 20 years of research documenting the success of the surgery, are the first-hand accounts from parents who say the procedure helped their child transition from a wheelchair to a walker, or that Dr. Park is responsible for their child’s first steps.
In 23 years since Dr. Park introduced his refined SDR, no patient has experienced any serious complications. Children with cerebral palsy have traveled to St. Louis from 46 states, and 42 countries around the world.
“I fought for this,” says Dr. Park. “No insurance company in the U.S. would call this surgery experimental anymore.”
“Seeing that little girl on the news get it done, that was the drive for us” says Debbie. “And watching Sophie miss out – seeing all her friends run off and leave her behind – we knew we had to go for it.”
The Nugents brought Sophie to St. Louis Children’s Hospital in early July, where Sophie became Dr. Park’s 2,000th patient to receive selective dorsal rhizotomy.
“We follow Dr. Park on his Facebook page, so we knew the 2,000th surgery was coming up,” says Debbie. “We were wondering if it would be us because we knew we’d be here that week.”
“I am more gratified than ever,” says Dr. Park. “There are 2,000 children running around that were helped. Sometimes parents call to say their child is 30 years old and leading a normal life. It’s wonderful.”
Just three days after her surgery, Sophie’s parents already noticed an improvement in her mobility. “Her feet are nice and loose,” said Debbie. “Before, she couldn’t wiggle her toes. Now she can.”
Dr. Park expects that Sophie will not need any assistance with walking indoors, or for short distances outdoors. “For long-distance, outdoor walking, she will need some assistance – one cane or two canes.”
But plans for a wheelchair are history.
Nine days after her surgery, Sophie was already walking.
“She amazed us today walking three flat steps unaided which she has never done before,” said Debbie. “SDR has completely been the right decision”
The Nugents call his 2,000th procedure “an important step for Dr. Park and his team.”
Indeed, medical professionals from the U.S. and around the world – including Germany, Italy, Korea and Canada – have visited Dr. Park to learn more about SDR. Dr. Park hopes this results in new SDR programs, though he says he personally plans to do 2,000 more.
“We need to establish this procedure as a mainstay of surgery. It’s vastly underutilized and it is the only procedure that can reduce spasticity permanently.”
Sophie’s mom and dad say Dr. Park changed their daughter’s future, and their lives. As they prepare to travel home to the UK, with a healthy bounce in Sophie’s step, it’s hard not to imagine their daughter’s dreams coming to life – dance classes, a ballet recital, a beautiful dance costume. Maybe a fairy princess?