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UCLA

Good Medicine: Stopping Seizures

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By Lyndon Stambler, Photos by Mark Berndt

Published Oct 1, 2009 8:00 AM


The Man Behind the Medicine

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The son of an Air Force logistics officer, Mathern moved around a lot as a child with his family, including a younger brother who is a noted spine neurosurgeon. Mathern was attending Case-Western Medical School when a surgeon spotted his skills — and Mathern, who calls neurosurgery "the thinking man's surgery," was stimulated by its puzzle-solving challenges. His interest in pediatric epilepsy arose out of his residency at UCLA in 1986. (He moved to Los Angeles after meeting his wife, film producer Sandra Rabins, on a beach in the Caribbean. They have two grown children.)

The understated Mathern does not come off as a stereotypical brain surgeon. In his cluttered office across from his lab in the Reed Building, conference badges hang from the filing cabinets and stacks of papers and discs pile up on his desk. He keeps a Pez-like doll with a brain that pops up from its head, a toy from a former patient, and a map of the Great Barrier Reef reminds him of his scuba diving days.

The success stories keep him going. "It certainly ain't the pay," he quips. He recalls a Colorado infant who had a left-sided hemispherectomy several years ago. Her family camped out at UCLA until she gained enough weight (six kilograms) to safely undergo the surgery. Five years later he phoned the family and heard the girl's voice on the answering machine. "Hi, this is Emily, please leave a message."

Mathern was so moved by her voice that he had to hang up and call back later.

Medicine and Miracles

Rachel Waters' son Aiden was born with a port-wine stain birthmark on the right side of his face, an indicator of Sturge-Weber Syndrome. She thought that his seizures were controlled by medication, but an EEG last year confirmed that he was having subclinical seizures and ultimately needed to have a hemispherectomy in August 2008. Rachel was reassured by Mathern's vast experience and his strong reputation with other doctors. "It was hard to hear him tell me, so bluntly, what he was going to do to my son. I wanted him to tell me everything would be all right. Instead, he armed me with the facts."

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Rachel Waters with son Aiden.

Mathern finished the surgery and announced, "You can hug the surgeon now."

Aiden is seizure free and is now being weaned off his anticonvulsant medication. He is walking and progressing well. Although he doesn't have language yet, he can hum some tunes. "It was the most difficult decision I've ever had to make, but one I don't regret," says Rachel, the Western Regional Director of the Hemispherectomy Foundation. "The constant worry about seizures has been lifted. We are hopeful that Aiden will be able to talk one day."

Mathern thrives on such hopes. "I've got to do something that's going to hurt these kids," he says. "I'm taking away cortex. I'm doing this now with the prospect of something in the future. Hopefully, if I did this when they were that young, they won't even know who I am."

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