THE COLONY

North Texas Teen Returns to Soccer Field Less Than Year After Brain Surgery

Sarah Stearns, 15, is playing again after suffering a brain hemorrhage, surgery and paralysis on one side of her body

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Every week 15-year-old Sarah Stearns can be found on the soccer field amongst her Frisco Fusion teammates. Her love for the sport developed when she was just a toddler, but last year her ability to play soccer temporarily came to a halt.

"It was really scary because they told my mom when I was in my coma that I wasn’t going back to soccer at all," explained Stearns.

Last Sept. while at a Young Life event through her church, the teen started to feel ill.

"I was with my friends and then I got a really bad headache. That was normal because it was right after soccer practice so I just thought I was dehydrated and I obviously wasn’t," said Stearn who had collapsed.

She was taken to Children's Health in Plano and later transported to the main location in Dallas.

She suffered a brain hemorrhage, which means a rupture of a blood vessel. She was later diagnosed with AVM, Arteriovenous Malformation, which is an abnormal tangling of arteries and veins.

Less than one percent of the population has it and mostly likely Stearns was born with it.

"AVMs are probably one of the most complex issues or disorders or pathologies that can occur in the brain," said Dr. Bradley Weprin, the director of pediatric neurosurgery at UT Southwestern and Children's Health.

He said as they monitored Stearns brain, her condition declined.

"Over time, the pressure in her brain was increasing to levels that I don't think we could control very well with medicine," explained Weprin. "So the decision was made to take her to the operating room."

He along with neurosurgeon Dr. Rafael de Oliveria Sillero and a team of experts from the Center for Cerebrovascular Disorders in Children at Children's Health performed a decompressive craniectomy.

"That's basically taking a portion of your skull, taking it off, and later being able to put it back on," explained Weprin.

“My brain was so swollen they had to take this part of my skull out and put it into my abdomen, I think that way my brain could slowly get un swollen and eventually they put it back in," Stearns explained. "That was crazy because people don’t have skulls In their stomach and I had never heard of that, so it was kind of cool."

"We made a pocket in the skin in her abdomen. So above the muscle of her abdomen, below the skin, created a pocket and placed her bone there so it would have a sterile storage place," said Weprin.

He said within a few days the pressure in Stearns brain stabilized and then Dr. Sillero performed a procedure which confirmed that Stearns had AVM.

They later used radiosurgery, a type of radiation therapy that's non invasive, to destroy the AVM.

"We believe that Sarah was the best candidate for gamma knife, because the AVM was small" explained Sillero.

He said this was the best approach because the AVM was deep in the brain and located in a difficult spot to operate on.

That was in January. After two brain surgeries and paralysis on the left side of her body, Stearns worked hard during rehab at Children's Health Andrews Institute in Plano and hustled to relearn how to walk and talk.

She said she was told it wouldn't be able to return to the soccer filed until 2021, but that motivated her to speed things up.

"I wasn’t happy about it, just because I’ve been playing my whole life really and I made a lot of my friends here and it was just scary because that's all I knew. It made me really motivated because I wanted to almost prove them wrong in a way, I wanted to come back to soccer," said Stearns.

The 15-year-old did just that. In May she was practicing again and in July, doctors said her AVM was half the original size. In August she helped her teammates win a soccer game.

"She was lucky and she was doing great, but it's not everyone, it's kind of a miracle," said Sillero.

“It’s all worth it in the end, even if it’s hard, you’ll realize it in the end that it was all worth it and that there were good moments even when it didn’t feel like it," said Stearns.

She admits, she's a little more cautious now than she was before 2019.

“It's definitely still scary playing soccer just because I know what happened to me so it's like, I can’t really 'head' the ball. If I did, it wouldn’t be terrible, but it’s not a good idea. So it’s kind of scary like feeling cautious all the time while I’m playing," Stearns said.

The teen said she's learned valuable lessons during her recovery.

"Before everything happened, I was a lot quieter than I am now. I think I just realized there’s no point in being quiet," said Stearns. “I didn’t really talk a lot, but now I do because in the hospital I had to make so many friends."

Children's Health said doctors expect her AVM to fully dissolve within the next two years.

Dr. Weprin said from he and his colleague's experience, they've treated 85 kids similar to Stearns situation over the last 10 years.

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