Jackson Community College sophomore Ryan Smith is your typical 20-year-old college student — he attends classes, hangs out with friends, works out at the gym — but the scar running down the back of his head reveals his struggle against the neurological disorder known as Chiari malformation.
When Smith began experiencing bizarre symptoms, such as crippling headaches, out-of-body experiences, numbness and extreme anxiety in early 2009, his doctor diagnosed him with migraines and depression. Smith’s mother had the suspicion that he was using drugs, but when treatment didn’t alleviate the extreme symptoms, his doctor suspected something else must be the cause.
After living with his illness and being bedridden for two months, Smith was diagnosed with Chiari malformation, a condition where the indent at the base of the skull is abnormally small, resulting in a fluid blockage between the brain and spinal cord. Ryan was referred to the University of Michigan Health System and treated by Dr. Karin Muraszko, a specialist in pediatric neurosurgery and a renowned expert on Chiari malformations.
Muraszko determined that Chiari malformation was the cause of Ryan’s crippling symptoms and performed a decompression surgery on him in April 2009. During the surgery, Muraszko removed a portion of the skull at the base of the back of the head, which creates room for fluid to flow between the brain and spinal cord. Muraszko said she was able to help Ryan because of the unique capabilities of UMHS’s Department of Neurosurgery.
According to Muraszko, hospitals typically need to send their patients to various locations in order to consult different specialists — but at the University of Michigan Hospital all of the specialists are located in one place.
“He really required the expertise of a wide variety of people within the children’s hospital and within the neurosurgery department to finally come to an understanding of what he had and how best to treat it,” she said.
Ryan’s mother, Catherine Smith, said she felt fortunate that they were able to see an expert in Chiari malformation so close to their home of Jackson, Michigan. After consulting a neurosurgeon in Utah, who would have been able to operate on Ryan sooner, the physician told Catherine Smith that her son would be better off waiting for Muraszko to perform the surgery because she is a world-renowned specialist in the field and had spent a significant amount of time researching the illness.
“I can’t even imagine there being a better neurosurgeon for that issue he had,” Catherine said. “I love Dr. Muraszko because she reminds me of Dr. House — she just doesn’t hold anything back.”
Ryan said he has not experienced any headaches since the surgery and that Muraszko made him optimistic about his recovery.
“She pretty much gave me the hope that I would get better, and she was the one who recognized what I had,” Ryan said.
However, he said he suffers from the anxiety that his condition will come back — a common fear he says exists among individuals who undergo brain surgery to treat a condition.
“I just thought headaches were normal,” he said. “I felt so much better after the surgery, and I wanted to go out and do stuff because I felt so much better.”
Catherine said the transformation in her son was miraculous, and that it changed his entire personality.
“It was like he was re-birthed at seventeen and became a completely different person,” she said.
While Ryan used to be reclusive and anti-social, Catherine said that after the surgery he became more outgoing and open with others.
“I give Dr. Muraszko all the credit for giving me my kid back,” she said.