Student ‘fights every inch’ to overcome brain defect

Thomas Wainwright and Jane Long
Thomas Wainwright and Jane Long

A SHEFFIELD University student has graduated with a degree in neuroscience after “fighting every inch” to overcome a brain-related condition of his own and receiving pioneering treatment in the city.

Thomas Wainwright was also awarded a university prize for exceptional achievement in the face of personal adversity in recognition of the way he refused to give up after being diagnosed with the rare birth defect, which caused seizures.

He came to Sheffield six years ago and it had been “a long and difficult journey towards his graduation”, said Prof Matthew Holley, head of biomedical science.

“We supported him as much as possible but his good marks have come from his own efforts and his grades are hard-earned. He has genuinely fought every inch. He is an absolutely fantastic example of commitment and endurance. He never doubted himself.”

Thomas, aged 28, was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 11 but with no suspected cause it was believed that he would grow out of the condition and that medication would keep the seizures at bay. He took his GCSEs and A-levels but suffered persistent side-effects from his medication.

He moved from Redbourne, near Scunthorpe, to study in Liverpool. After the side-effects increased and his seizures worsened, he returned home to study and then transferred to the University of Sheffield in 2005 to study neuroscience.

In Sheffield, he was referred to a neurologist and given help so he could live in university accommodation and lead as independent a student life as possible.

A 3T MRI scan at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in 2007 revealed a birth defect known as an encephalocele. Part of Thomas’s skull hadn’t fused together and his brain protruded through a small hole.

Referred to the Epilepsy Surgery Team at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, he was introduced to neurosurgeon Mr Andras Kemeny, who had spotted this birth defect only once before.

Thomas said: “After all these years, and as nervous as I was at the prospect of having neurosurgery and seeing a neurosurgeon, all the mysteries surrounding my epilepsy had finally been revealed. After all this time I was given new hope.”

The operation in April 2008 was only the second such procedure that Mr Kemeny had performed in his 20-year career.

Thomas has been seizure-free for three years and no longer needs medication. He continues to live with some health problems associated with his battle with epilepsy and has also experienced significant disruption to his studies during his treatment.

However, thanks to his strength of character and strong support network, he graduated with a 2:2 in the university’s Department of Biomedical Science.

Thomas, who was awarded the Christopher Steinitz prize, is full of praise for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals and the University’s School of Medicine – to the epilepsy surgery team at the Royal Hallamshire and in particular co-ordinator Janet Pearson, Mr Kemeny, registrar Mr Perak, radiologist Dr David Connolly and anaesthetist Dr Daniel Turnbull.

“My prime reason for studying neuroscience at Sheffield was to find out for myself what was causing my epilepsy. It has been a long, hard road that has taken 16 years of my life but finally I believe that this has been achieved.”

Janet Pearson was “a breath of fresh air”, he said. “She seemed to understand everything my family were going through. Janet was instrumental in setting a date for my operation and gave my mum hope when she felt so helpless and was at her lowest and most desperate time, something she will never forget.”

Because of Thomas’s operation, MRI scans in people with epilepsy in Sheffield now specifically examine the area of the brain where his encephalocele was found – something that was not standard practice before. Eleven people have been diagnosed since April 2008 thanks to the pioneering work at the Royal Hallamshire, which is receiving international recognition.