Claudia Martinez was a college student chasing her dream of becoming a doctor when a neurosurgeon gave her alarming advice: Get brain surgery as soon as possible or risk becoming paralyzed from the neck down.
Within a week, she was in the operating room. That was in 2012. She’s had five more major brain surgeries since.
“Hardships are often blessings in disguise,” she writes on her Facebook page.
Before her first surgery, Martinez had been having severe headaches, loss of feeling in her hands and feet, and other debilitating symptoms. They stemmed from a little-known condition called chiari malformation. It’s a structural problem in the base of your skull and the part of your brain that controls balance, the cerebellum.
“Chiari malformation occurs when part of your skull is either too small or doesn't develop correctly. Because of this, the brain in the back of the head can extend down into the spinal canal,” says Michael Smith, MD, chief medical director at WebMD.
The severity of the condition varies. Some people with mild cases of it don’t have symptoms.
But “in more severe cases, the pressure that the back of the brain puts on the spinal cord and the brain stem -- which controls many of our bodily functions like swallowing and breathing and heart rate -- can lead to severe neurological complications,” Smith says.
Surgery is the main treatment to improve severe symptoms and stop the condition from doing more damage. But after her sixth brain surgery, Martinez had a stroke.
“Initially, I couldn’t function from the neck down,” she writes on Facebook. She says she had to relearn how to do “every single thing we take for granted in everyday life,” such as putting on clothes, feeding herself, and using the bathroom.
Her gradual recovery through months of physical rehab helped crystalize her vision for the future, though. “I thank God everyday for what I’ve gone through, bc it is how I’ve found my calling,” she writes. “I’ve officially decided to pursue a residency in PM&R (Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation).”
Martinez is on track to graduate from UTHealth McGovern Medical School in Houston next year. In the meantime, she organizes the annual "Conquer Chiari" charitable walk in Houston each year. It helps raise money for research into the condition.
“I want people to know there is hope,” she says on Conquer Chiari’s website. “There [were] times I thought I wasn't going to make it; times I thought, ‘If this is how I am going to live then I am in full acceptance of death.’ But no matter how bad the situation seems, you have to always believe that things will get better.”