Sean Kilmartin II was about 7 years old when his world began changing. Eventually it turned into an epilepsy-driven frenzy as he began battling seizures that became more frequent as he grew older.
What began as cold-like symptoms while he was still 6, led to numerous doctor visits, antibiotics and multiple tests for the Jamestown boy. Antibiotics didn’t touch the problem and, for a while, his condition puzzled many in the medical profession.
“We were continually going to the doctors,” recalled his mother, Susan Kilmartin.
In the end, and without any clear answers following a CAT scan, she and her husband, Sean Kilmartin, decided to take their son to Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. Even the doctors there were “kind of baffled for quite a while and could not pinpoint it at first,” Susan Kilmartin said.
Sean’s childhood quickly turned into a blur of MRIs, blood tests and a smorgasbord of numerous medications over the next 13 years as physicians and his family tried to control his seizures. Medications impacted him. School became difficult at times. He could not play football or wrestle, so he instead chose golf and bowling. The limitations didn’t stop there. His mother recalled how socialization was hard during her son’s high school years.
On Tuesday, April 26, thousands of volunteers will help sell a special Kids Day edition of The Buffalo News. The proceeds from the sale of this special edition are presented to Variety, the Children’s Charity, to benefit Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, the Robert Warner MD Center for Children with Special Needs, Children’s Charities of Western New York and Cradle Beach.
And Sean, now 20, remembers how he had to avoid being around strobe lights and, even now, remains careful about that.
By the time he was a teenager, Sean was suffering two to three seizures per month, which is considered to be a lot, his doctor said.
Sean’s parents knew he could undergo a rather invasive brain surgery to try to help mitigate the seizures, but it was risky, had a longer recovery and was more painful. They decided to wait until their son graduated from Falconer High School in 2014.
It was at that point that Sean was a brave soldier, willing to try a relatively new procedure known as laser ablation therapy, which is being performed at the hospital by pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Renee M. Reynolds, also the hospital’s medical director of neurosurgical outreach and education, She is the only doctor in the area to perform it.
“I was a little curious, but I thought, ‘Hey, this is possibly how it has to go, and I’ll try it if it helps,’ ” Sean said. “I was nervous at first and I wanted to get through high school first.”
Susan Kilmartin said she and her husband had big concerns about the traditional surgery and anguished over what would be best for their son. They didn’t make a quick decision.
“We had been praying. We were considering the (traditional) one, but something just didn’t feel right about doing it,” Kilmartin said. “So, it held us off from making a decision for maybe a year and a half. And at that point is when the hospital began having Reynolds come and she was doing the operations at Children’s with a new procedure.”
The laser ablation therapy – much less invasive with a quicker recovery and less risk – was the ideal “elixir” in Sean’s case. Reynolds performed the procedure in May 2015, nearly a year ago, when Sean was 19.
“It was like the answer to our prayer,” Susan Kilmartin said. “We learned about laser ablation therapy at the perfect time, right when Sean was graduating. They mentioned to us how it was experimental but how it can really help. It was like it was meant to be.”
Sean faced several tests as part of an extensive screening process, which determined he was a candidate for the procedure that became “a miracle” for him. During the minimally invasive procedure, a laser is placed into the suspected source of the patient’s seizure activity, MRI technology allows GPS navigation of the brain, and once the laser is in the optimal location, the heat from the laser destroys the affected tissue using real-time MRI imaging.
“Following the laser ablation treatment, many patients remain seizure-free, and their recovery time from surgery is remarkable compared to the alternative open surgical techniques,” said Reynolds, who began performing it here in 2013 after learning about it during her fellowship training in Seattle.
Many patients stay overnight in the hospital and return home the following day with minimal pain, Reynolds said. The new procedure reduces patients’ risk of hemorrhage, infections, cosmetic defects and post-operative hydrocephalus, or fluid accumulation in the brain. And, patients recover more quickly.
The surgery was a life-changer for Sean. He is now completing his first-year studying media arts at Jamestown Community College, where he also works at the college art gallery setting up exhibits.
Sean has not suffered any seizures in the nearly one year since the surgery and is living a much healthier, happier life. He still is on medication, but it continues to be reduced. He hopes to soon learn to drive, something he has to wait to do until a full year after his surgery.
“I don’t have to worry about myself having a seizure. I can be more relaxed and more open,” Sean said. “I still watch some things, like how much strobe light is at a party. I try to take things slow and slowly adjust to it.”
The laser ablation treatment has been gaining momentum nationwide. “Medicine now is trying to become sexier, with procedures that are less risky and less invasive,” Reynolds said. “So from that standpoint, it’s a breakthrough.”
Reynolds, also an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University at Buffalo Medical School, has performed the procedure on children and adults, including a man in his 50s. “So far, of the patients I have treated here, the majority remain seizure-free,” she said.
“Every patient here I have treated has been reluctant to go through the more traditional, invasive one,” she said. “I think we’re capturing a lot of people who have been waiting for a very long time and who could have benefitted from this treatment, but were just a little bit nervous and hesitant to go through with the invasive procedure.”
Women & Children’s is the only hospital offering the procedure locally.
Reynolds is thrilled that Sean, has done so well. “He’s one of those patients we evaluated and felt he would benefit from the more open procedure,” she said.
In the end, his mother is thankful.
“I’m grateful that we did it. It isn’t easy,” she said. “There are several tests that Sean had to go through. It was time-consuming, emotional and it was difficult, but it was worth it ... This has turned things around for him. It’s a different world.”