This girl underwent brain surgery while fully awake, here’s her freaky description of what it was like

This teenage girl underwent ‘awake craniotomy’ as surgeons removed a tumour from her brain.

Portia Swan underwent brain surgery while fully awake New Zealand
© David Trinks / UNSPLASH
Portia Swan underwent brain surgery while fully awake New Zealand

Brain surgery sounds scary enough, but going under the knife while fully awake is a whole other story. This practice is called ‘awake craniotomy’ and we’ll get to why on Earth surgeons would put a patient through that a little later on.

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For now, let’s introduce 15-year-old Portia Swan. Portia became the youngest New Zealander to ever undergo this type of surgery earlier this month. Doctors removed as much of her brain tumour as possible while she was awake and - brace yourself - chatting. So, here’s what ‘awake craniotomy’ is and how Portia described the freaky experience.

What ‘awake craniotomy’ is

According to Mount Lebanon Hospital, ‘awake brain surgery is used to treat brain tumors and epileptic seizures near areas that control language, movement or cognition, movement disorder’:

When the patient is alert, we can ask questions and request specific movements or responses from the patient so we can monitor brain performance as we operate, this is can help ensure the brain remains safe while the tumor is removed.

That’s exactly what happened to Portia as Auckland surgeon Andrew Law removed part of her skull and - when he was ready to start removing the tumour - woke her from sedation. As the New Zealand Herald reported:

Having Portia awake to answer questions meant the neurosurgeon knew he was not damaging the part of Portia’s brain responsible for speech.

Portia’s experience

Portia has put a brave face on when talking about the experience, but she did admit:

It was pretty full on and I could see a lot of wires and monitors.
When I woke up my speech therapist, Anita, was right there holding my hand and talking to me, which was really comforting.

The pair chatted about Portia’s favourite TV show, Friends. Touchingly, she recounted how ‘Andrew was singing and telling some bad jokes’ to help soothe her as he operated in her skull. Music was also left playing, which Portia says helped as she needed to keep her head ‘completely still and not move an inch’.

Thankfully, she was not in any pain as there are no pain receptors in the brain. Portia ‘couldn’t feel a thing’ although she clearly remembers being woken up for the whopping 5-hour surgery.

What’s happening now?

Portia’s dad said Portia’s family ‘couldn’t be happier’:

They said the MRI did not show any tumour so it looks like he has got it all out, which is absolutely incredible.

He joked that his daughter looked like she ‘could run a marathon’, and doctors agreed that she had dealt well with the surgery.

Straight after the operation, a sample of Portia’s tumour was sent to Sydney for analysis in the ground-breaking Zero programme. This means experts will analyse the genomic sequencing of the tumour and give Portia a specialised ongoing treatment plan.

The family remain positive as they fundraise for the cost of Portia’s ongoing treatment, some of which will take place in Australia. As her father explained:

We want to keep ahead of this and make sure we do everything possible to make sure this doesn’t come back.

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Sources used:

Mount Lebanon Hospital: Awake craniotomy for Brain Tumors: indications, benefits, types of anesthesia and surgical techniques

New Zealand Herald: Teen girl Portia Swan reveals what it felt like to have brain surgery when awake — and what she talked about

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