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Removing brain tumor ends tot’s laughing fits

/ Source: The Associated Press

Only weeks after physicians bored into the center of her brain, thanks to a surgical version of GPS, Anastasia Lagalla isn't laughing any more — and that's a good thing.

Physicians at Schneider Children's Hospital successfully removed a tumor from the 3-year-old's brain that caused hypothalamic hamartoma, a rare condition leading to "gelastic seizures" that produce uncontrollable laughter, followed by crying, kicking and screaming.

If left untreated, the condition could worsen to the point of mental retardation, doctors said. Only 30 cases are diagnosed annually worldwide.

"It's like I have my little girl back," Ana's mom, Jennifer Anderson of Ridge, N.Y., beamed as she told reporters Thursday of her family's ordeal. "She's doing amazing."

The laughing seizures began in May 2006, Anderson said, with only a few episodes a day. At first, Anderson and her husband, Peter Lagalla, agreed with the assessment of doctors that the tantrum-like symptoms were merely "terrible twos" behavior.

But the frequency of the seizures grew to an alarming rate, Anderson said, and earlier this year physicians said a tumor in the little girl's brain was the culprit.

"You could tell by the look that something isn't right," Ana's mom said of her daughter's behavior, which in a bizarre way reminder Anderson of the "Batman" cartoons.

"It was almost as if she started to grind her teeth and then it was kind of a smile almost like the Joker — I don't know how else to describe it," Anderson said.

On March 30, Dr. Steven Schneider, the hospital's co-chief of pediatric neurosurgery, and a team of colleagues removed the tumor in a delicate, four-hour procedure, which he referred to as a "journey to the center of her brain." Since the surgery, the seizures have stopped completely and Schneider was optimistic about Ana's prognosis.

Schneider — no relation to the hospital name — conceded he had "no room for error" in the delicate surgery. That's where the special surgical navigating tools — a high-tech version of GPS using microscopic cameras, precision instruments and other devices — helped, he said.

"The biggest risk here is that you get lost and you wind up where you don't belong and you wind up damaging something," he said. "If everything is done just right and just correctly, you'll be exactly where you need to be."

Schneider Children's Hospital is only the second facility in the United States to perform the rare brain surgery; the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix is the other.

"It's incredible," Schneider said. "Because what it can do is restore normal or near normal development to the child."

And it didn't take long for Ana's parents to notice the changes.

Anderson said when they saw their daughter in the recovery room after surgery, "she smiled for us. So that's when we knew everything was going to be OK."