By CATIE MALOOLY
UI Health Care Marketing and Communications
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Seth Nelson is an active, kind-hearted 14-year-old. He loves playing sports and is known for helping others, including his elderly neighbors and children at school who struggle with classwork.
What Seth and his parents, Mike and Ann Nelson, didn’t realize was that he had been living with health struggles of his own for years.
Growing up, Seth felt intense headaches.
“Back then, my headaches were like my heartbeat — you could hear the bouncing and the beat of it,” says Seth.
In October 2013, a football injury brought to light the reason for Seth’s pain.
“I was the center and their middle linebacker rushed early. Right when I stood up, he lowered his head and we had head-to-head contact,” says Seth. “I might have blacked out, I don’t remember, but my coach came up to me and put me on the sideline.”
Despite following proper concussion protocol, Seth was still experiencing numbness, tingling, and severe headaches weeks later. His parents took him to a local doctor, where an MRI revealed Chiari malformation — a structural defect in the part of the brain that controls balance. The condition occurs when part of the skull is small or mis-shapen, which presses on the brain and forces brain tissue into the spinal canal.
“Once we found out what the symptoms were and the diagnosis, it was very scary because of the type of surgery that needed to be done,” says Michael. “When you start messing with the brain, skull, and spine, you don’t know what could happen.”
Seth and his family were referred to University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. In July 2014, a team of pediatric neurologists and surgeons determined that Seth needed surgery to remove a portion of his skull. This would make more space for his brain and relieve his blocked spinal column of fluid buildup.
“I don’t think we can ask for a better care team,” says Ann. “I can’t say enough about them and their expertise. You take your son’s brain and his spinal cord and you put his life in the hands of a neurosurgeon. You have to have the utmost faith that they know what they’re doing.”
One nurse in particular was a comfort to the Nelsons when they needed it most.
“When he was going off to surgery, I played the mom role — ‘Everything will be fine, Seth. We’ll see you when you’re done,'” says Ann. “That moment I turned around and wasn’t looking at him anymore, tears kicked in. This nurse — I’m not even sure she was involved directly in his care — put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It’s OK, mom. We have him. He’ll be fine.’ That meant the world to me.”
Seth’s surgery was a success, and today he feels better and has few limitations. Although he can’t play football anymore, he is the team manager and remains active in baseball, basketball, and golf.
“Seth’s care team gave him back things we didn’t even realize were missing,” says Ann. “He’s back to being happy and healthy, enjoying life, and laughing again and not feeling like he’s in pain all the time.”