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Christina Santhouse: 'I wasn't going to let it stop me"

By Alynda Wheat
Updated February 16, 2016 11:00 AM
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Credit: MICHAEL BRYANT/Philly News

Christina Santhouse is a success by nearly any measure.

The 28-year-old speech pathologist earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years. She bought her own house two years ago, and got married around the same time. But there is something missing: the right half of Christina’s brain.

A bouncy kid, Santhouse suffered seizures in elementary school, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In third grade, she was diagnosed with the extremely rare disease Rasmussen’s encephalitis, which was destined to progress if left untreated. Eventually, doctors said, it would kill her. But the unstoppable Santhouse plowed ahead, continuing to play soccer and perform in her school’s musical, Annie, even as her seizures progressed to nearly 150 a day. Then, in 1996, the 8-year-old underwent surgery to remove half her brain.

“I had never heard of surgery like that before. It was very barbaric,” Santhouse’s mother, Lynne Catarro, told The Inquirer. “You can live with one kidney, but whoever thought you could live with half a brain?”

Indeed, the operation is only performed about 100 times a year, usually on children with severe seizures. Santhouse is one of only two to complete a graduate degree, Kristi Hall, cofounder of the Hemispherectomy Foundation, told The Inquirer.

Santhouse’s operation took 14 hours, but she was in especially secure hands with a neurosurgeon who would go on to national prominence: Ben Carson.

Long before he was a presidential candidate, Carson operated on children like Santhouse in the complex surgeries to disentangle the brain’s halves.

“The night before the surgery, he came in the room and said, ‘You say your prayers and I’ll say mine,” Catarro told The Inquirer.

Life after the surgery was difficult for Santhouse, who lost motor skills on the left side of her body.

But “I was full steam ahead,” she said.

She got her driver’s license at 17, became a star bowler who competed in England and Australia, then decided to go away to college, enrolling in Misericordia University near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

She defied her teacher’s expectations, excelling in her classes, eventually finding a job providing educational services to Bucks County Schools. Then, she married freelance writer and teaching assistant Vince Paravecchia in 2014.

“I wasn’t going to let [surgery] stop me,” Santos, who lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania, told the Inquirer.

Or anything else, for that matter.