Inside Pediatrics, Nephrology

Neonatal Kidney Collaborative Advances Understanding of Acute Kidney Injury

David Askenazi, M.D., is a pediatric nephrologist at Children’s of Alabama and a professor in the Division of Nephrology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics.

David Askenazi, M.D., is a pediatric nephrologist at Children’s of Alabama and a professor in the Division of Nephrology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics.

A bunch of pediatric nephrologists and neonatologists walk into a National Institutes of Health meeting on neonatal acute kidney injury (AKI) in 2013. The punchline? They are inspired to form the Neonatal Kidney Collaborative (NKC) with the clever website address of babykidney.org.

“At that NIH meeting, we recognized that bringing people to work together on multicenter studies was a critical step in moving the field forward,” said Children’s of Alabama pediatric nephrologist David J. Askenazi, M.D., one of the founding members and current NKC Board chair.

Today, the collaborative boasts 77 participating institutions with 168 members and 19 published manuscripts. Several of those publications come from the group’s inaugural study called AWAKEN (Assessment of Worldwide Acute Kidney Injury Epidemiology in Neonates), the first multinational, multicenter study on neonatal AKI.

The study involved a retrospective review of three months of data on 2,162 infants in Level 2 or 3 neonatal intensive care units in four countries, a third of whom had AKI. The investigators found those with AKI were 4.6 times more likely to die and stayed in the hospital an average of 8.8 days longer than those without. Other results from AWAKEN include risk factors for mortality and the development of AKI (such as low albumin and hemoglobin levels) and hypo- and hypernatremia, as well as a link between intraventricular hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) and AKI.

“We chose the name AWAKEN because we felt like the field needed to be awakened,” Dr. Askenazi said. And it’s worked, he said, with the number of studies, initiatives and young people interested in neonatal nephrology growing exponentially.

The collaborative, he said, “not only provides opportunities to study neonatal kidney disease, but we also have committees to address the educational, advocacy, and research needs of this evolving field.”

The group recently received a significant research grant from Nuwellis, a global company focused on fluid management solutions for pediatric and adult patients, to perform the ALMOND (Assessing Longitudinal Micropreemie Outcomes in Neonates at Risk for Renal Disease) study. “This research effort will expand our understanding of neonatal kidney disease in extremely premature neonates who were enrolled in a multicenter trial called PENUT (Preterm Erythropoietin Neuroprotection Trial),” he said.

The study will use the PENUT database, which contains thousands of clinical data points and hundreds of thousands of urine biomarker data points from more than 900 babies. “It’s a goldmine,” said Dr. Askenazi. “It will allow the NKC to pose and answers questions about kidney disease in extremely premature neonates, including whether caffeine, commonly prescribed to these infants, can prevent AKI; determine the fluid provision to improve clinical outcomes; and identify additional risk factors for neonatal AKI, among other questions.”

“The work of this collaborative is contagious, and it drives me,” he said. “It makes me want to continue to help move the field forward and support young doctors who are filled with energy and excitement.”

Inside Pediatrics, Neonatology

Quality Improvement Significantly Improves Outcomes for the Tiniest Babies

Left, Colm Travers, M.D., and right, C. Vivek Lal, M.D., are neonatologists at Children's of Alabama and faculty in the Division of Neonatology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics.

Left, Colm Travers, M.D., and right, C. Vivek Lal, M.D., are neonatologists at Children’s of Alabama and faculty in the Division of Neonatology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics.

In 2014, when neonatologists C. Vivek Lal, M.D., and Colm Travers, M.D., began digging into the data on extremely preterm infants (those born before 28 weeks), they found that Children’s of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham had some of the best outcomes in the country. But there was still room for improvement.

Infants born so early are at high risk of death and intracranial hemorrhage, or brain bleeds, the most devastating outcomes in the first week after birth.

“We saw a tremendous opportunity to improve mortality and other outcomes,” said Dr. Lal. “We saw this as a chance to fine-tune our practices, and not only be the best in outcomes, but also create a narrative for others to follow.”

“Our goal was to reduce the rates of brain bleeds or deaths in the first week,” said Dr. Travers. “There’s some evidence that non-adherence to certain practices and a lack of standardization can lead to worse outcomes in the smallest babies. We felt that by standardizing care to the best available evidence we could improve those outcomes.”

That’s exactly what they did with the Golden Week™ program, a multidisciplinary, evidence-based, standardized quality-improvement plan to improve the care and outcomes of the micro-preemies. It incorporates a variety of changes in how care is provided, with detailed protocols for the first hour of life, the first 72 hours, and days four to seven.

When the initiative began in 2016, the rate of severe brain bleeds or death was 27.4 percent. Today it’s less than 10 percent and continuing to fall.

The team involves neonatologists and neonatal fellows, as well as respiratory therapists, nurses, residents, and other stakeholders who care for the tiny babies at the bedside.

The initiative began with a comprehensive literature search of every clinical trial or observational study related to mortality or brain bleeds in these babies, identifying successful interventions and then integrating them into the care pathway.

These include ensuring that the mother receives corticosteroids before delivery to help the fetus mature; delayed cord clamping after delivery; putting the baby into a certain position once they’re admitted; initiating evidence-based order sets; and limiting fluid and bicarbonate boluses and the use of inotrope drugs as well as blood transfusions.

Some of the changes were tiny, but with big payoffs, including how the nurses change the babies’ diapers. “We make sure they don’t move the head too much or lift the body too much. Anything that might cause a change in the blood flow going to the brain,” Dr. Travers said. Overall, the team made 24 changes in the care provided during the first week.

The key was not one change, but the changes as a whole, said Dr. Travers. “It was when we put all of these small changes together that we saw the impact,” he said.

The results are being published in the journal Pediatrics this spring.

Cardiology, Inside Pediatrics

Harmony Device Saves Children from Open-Heart Surgery

Harmony transcatheter pulmonary valve

In July 2021, interventional cardiologist William McMahon, M.D., Mark Law, M.D., and the Pediatric Cardiac Catheterization Lab team at Children’s of Alabama, snaked a catheter device through a vein in a 16-year-old girl’s leg up to her heart and replaced the valve. She went home the next day with just a small scar on her leg that will eventually become invisible. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the device, called the Harmony transcatheter pulmonary valve, in March. Drs. McMahon and Law were the first cardiology specialists in a 10-state region to use it.

Fewer than 20,000 children are born each year with Tetralogy of Fallot, a condition marked by four major heart defects: ventricular septal defect, or a hole in the two lower chambers of the heart; a narrowing of the pulmonary valve and main pulmonary artery; malaligned aortic valve; and ventricular hypertrophy, or thickening, of the right ventricle. These children often need surgery soon after birth and a pulmonary valve replacement by the time they’re adolescents or young adults.

In the past, that meant another open-heart surgery and time spent on cardiopulmonary bypass, which carries significant risks of complications; a week or more in the hospital; scarring; weeks of recovery at home; and a low but real risk of death. In addition, because the children have already had major heart surgery, scar tissue from the previous procedure makes the valve replacement even more difficult.

In July 2021, however, interventional cardiologist William McMahon, M.D., and his colleague Mark Law, M.D., together with the Pediatric Cardiac Catheterization Lab team at Children’s of Alabama, snaked a catheter device through a vein in a 16-year-old girl’s leg up to her heart and replaced the valve. She went home the next day with just a small scar on her leg that will eventually become invisible.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had just approved the device, called the Harmony transcatheter pulmonary valve, in March. Drs. McMahon and Law were the first cardiology specialists in a 10-state region to use it. While similar devices have been available for pulmonary valve replacement, few children with Tetralogy of Fallot qualified because of their previous surgeries. Now, Dr. McMahon estimates that four out of five children with the condition will qualify.

The new procedure is a game-changer, he said. “We have many patients who live in fear of that surgery because they’ve been told they need another open-heart surgery since they were 8 or 10. We certainly have some patients who reasonably don’t want to do it and some who put it off. That becomes a problem because it means their heart is working harder.”

Dr. McMahon says the advantages to the Harmony device are obvious: “There’s a quicker recovery; lower risk of major complications and death; and they’re able to get on with their lives sooner.” The team has completed 10 procedures so far with no complications other than some arrhythmia that resolved with treatment.

Some patients returned to work or school three days after the procedure. And while the valve won’t last forever, Dr. McMahon expects a new valve could be inserted within the old one in the same manner. “That’s the overall goal of these valves,” he said. “To reduce the total number of heart surgeries that our patients need during their lifetime.”

William McMahon, M.D.

William McMahon, M.D., is an interventional cardiologist at Children’s of Alabama and a professor in the Division of Pediatric Cardiology, University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics.

Inside Pediatrics, Pulmonology

New Pulmonary Faculty Join Children’s of Alabama

Spencer Poore, M.D., Ryne Simpson, M.D., and Christopher Fowler, M.D.

Left to right, Spencer Poore, M.D., Ryne Simpson, M.D., and Christopher Fowler, M.D. All three are assistant professors in the Division of Pediatric Pulmonary & Sleep Medicine, University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics.

The Division of Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine at Children’s of Alabama has added three physicians to its team.

Christopher Fowler, M.D.

Christopher Fowler, M.D., is used to the South, having completed medical school at the Medical College of Georgia, his pediatric residency in South Carolina, and his pediatric pulmonary fellowship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. So leaving simply wasn’t on the table. “I enjoyed being here so much as a fellow that I really wanted to stay and keep working with this awesome team,” he said.

Dr. Fowler entered pediatrics because, as his wife put it, when he was on the pediatrics rotation in medical school, he was happiest and most excited to come home and tell her about his day.

The pulmonology specialty came after caring for his first cystic fibrosis (CF) patients, all of whom were hospitalized with pneumonia. “These kids had a lot going on. And they were very smart. They taught me all about their disease and how they take care of themselves when they’re at home and then how I should take care of them while they were in the hospital. I enjoyed getting to know them and learn from them so much that I decided pulmonology was the thing for me.”

His research focuses on investigating adrenal complications from steroids CF patients take. Chronic use leads to adrenal insufficiency, with symptoms mimicking a respiratory disease. Studies in adults with CF show that about 8 percent develop adrenal problems over a 10-year period, but there are no studies in children, he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be as big a problem in children as it is in the adults. But I think it’s a good question to answer.”

When he’s not trying to answer complex research questions, Dr. Fowler can be found corralling his own children and playing the drums.

T. Spencer Poore, M.D.

Spencer Poore, M.D., is quite familiar with Children’s of Alabama, having completed his pediatric internship and residency in Birmingham. Now, after three years in Colorado for his pulmonology fellowship, he’s back as one of the pulmonology division’s newest faculty.

He chose Children’s for his first academic position because it provides the opportunity to treat a wide variety of patients, from urban to rural, with common conditions like asthma to extremely rare pulmonary conditions. “I wanted a big program that could expose me to anything and everything,” he said, “as well as springboard me into any direction I wanted to go given its world-renowned experts.”

He brought with him his research on fungal infections and lung inflammation in children with cystic fibrosis. “Fungus is an interesting organism in that in some people it causes infection and in some an allergic reaction,” he said. “And there’s probably some degree of overlap, but we don’t know the pathways. So it feels like chipping away at an iceberg.”

Whatever they find, he said, the recognition should go to the patients. “If it weren’t for the patients willing to help people they’ll never even meet, we couldn’t do this,” he said.

Outside of work, Dr. Poore enjoys cycling, both mountain biking and road biking.

Ryne Simpson, M.D.

Having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and attended medical school at the University of Tennessee in Memphis, Ryne Simpson, M.D., was not quite prepared for the weather when he completed his residency in Kansas City, Missouri, and his fellowship in Cincinnati, Ohio. So Children’s of Alabama — with its warm climate and proximity to his family — was a perfect fit. “I was tired of the cold Midwestern winters that never ended,” he said.

His focus on pediatric pulmonology comes from the “complex nature of the patients,” he said. “I enjoy that we get to do procedures like bronchoscopy, and also the continuity of working with the patients.”

Dr. Simpson’s prior research focused on identifying best practices for flexible bronchoscopy and chronic ventilation in children based on outcomes and readmission rates. He enjoys such quality improvement and systems process studies, he said, given their more immediate impact on clinical outcomes compared to basic or clinical research. “I don’t always have the mindset for multi-year longitudinal studies,” he said.

Since coming to Birmingham, he’s enjoyed trying new restaurants. Now that he has his own house, he said, he’s looking forward to getting a set of drums “and playing when I want.”

Inside Pediatrics

U.S. News & World Report Names Nine Children’s of Alabama Programs to Best Children’s Hospitals List

U.S. News & World Report has named nine pediatric specialty services at Children’s of Alabama among the nation’s best children’s hospitals for 2021-22.

Children’s ranked in the top 50 programs in the United States for:

This is the 12th consecutive year that Children’s has participated in the program and 12th consecutive year to be included in the rankings among the best children’s hospitals in the nation. This is also the first year U.S. News & World Report has ranked hospitals by state and region. Children’s ranked as the top hospital in Alabama for children and tied for third in the southeast region. The complete listing and corresponding rankings for the magazine’s 2021-22 Best Children’s Hospitals is online at www.usnews.com/childrenshospitals.

“We’re particularly proud of our people and programs being recognized on the national and regional levels, as we continue to provide the finest possible care and treatment to the children and families we serve,” said Children’s CEO and President Tom Shufflebarger. “Last year was entirely unique, and this year has been challenging as well, as we bounce back from COVID-19. It’s also been a rewarding year and one that has made us better as we carry out our mission to be a leading pediatric medical center.”

Children’s and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Departments of Pediatrics and Surgery collaborated to submit the requested information. Children’s is the primary site for pediatric clinical and educational programs for the UAB School of Medicine. Children’s has provided specialized medical care for ill and injured children since 1911, offering inpatient and outpatient services throughout Central Alabama.

U.S. News & World Report introduced the Best Children’s Hospitals rankings in 2007 to help families of sick children find the best medical care available. Children’s and UAB began participating in the pediatric rankings in 2011.

Since 1911, Children’s of Alabama has provided specialized medical care for ill and injured children, offering inpatient, outpatient and primary care throughout Central Alabama. Ranked among the best children’s hospitals in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, Children’s serves patients from every county in Alabama and nearly every state. Children’s is a private, not-for-profit medical center that serves as the teaching hospital for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) pediatric medicine, surgery, psychiatry, research and residency programs. The medical staff consists of UAB faculty and Children’s full-time physicians, as well as private practicing community physicians.

Inside Pediatrics, Pulmonology

Solving the Mystery of Lung Disease in Children with Sickle Cell Disease

Dr-Saadoon-Ammar-Pulmonology-Headhsot-Resized

Children’s of Alabama pulmonologist Ammar Alishlash, M.D.

If lung disease is the leading cause of death in children with sickle cell disease, then why aren’t pulmonologists more involved in their care earlier? That’s a question Children’s of Alabama pulmonologist Ammar Alishlash, M.D., wanted to answer. “I felt for us to take care of those patients, especially those with underlying lung disease, would serve them better clinically,” Dr. Alishlash said. 

In the past, the leading cause of death in those with sickle cell disease was infections. But the use of prophylactic antibiotics changed that. Today, it’s acute chest syndrome (ACS), marked by shortness of breath, low oxygen levels and fever. Many patients progress to respiratory failure, and some die. Yet lung specialists are not usually involved in their care while in the hospital or after discharge. Instead, in most children’s hospitals they are managed solely by hematologists. 

“The problem is, we don’t have any specific treatment targeted for acute chest syndrome,” said Dr. Alishlash. Instead, patients are managed with supportive therapy, including oxygen, fluids, antibiotics and sometimes invasive or non-invasive ventilation. 

Now Dr. Alishlash is on a mission to change that dynamic. He’s launched a three-pronged research initiative: identifying risk factors for ACS to proactively recognize children with a higher risk, developing clinical pathways to prevent progression and mortality and researching novel therapies to treat the condition. 

“I became interested in this condition because I feel that, as pulmonologists, we have experience with other lung diseases,” he said. “We can apply our knowledge from other lung diseases to the sickle cell population, which could open a lot of doors for diagnosis and new treatments.” 

So far, Dr. Alishlash has instituted a clinical pathway to standardize the care children with ACS receive after admission. The pathway has been in place for about 18 months, and the results are encouraging, with a nearly 50 percent reduction in length of stay. In addition, all patients have survived. Previously, one out of every 100 children would die. “That’s pretty significant, especially when you’re talking about children, who are typically between 2 and 4 years of age when they are most likely to develop ACS,” he said. 

Dr. Alishlash has also made progress in identifying risk factors for ACS in children with sickle cell disease. One is nocturnal hypoxemia, when oxygen levels drop at night. This seems to induce the sickling and is associated with increased risk of ACS.1 He also found a correlation between the neighborhood where patients live and ACS, due to, he thinks, air quality, socioeconomic factors and greater stress.2 

On the laboratory side, Dr. Alishlash and his team are using a sickle cell mouse model to test potential treatments as well as identify triggers. One interesting finding is that chlorine can cause sickling, leading to the release of heme from red blood cells, which is toxic to the lung endothelium and subsequent development of ACS. A medication called hemopexin, however, scavenges the free heme. When given to mice exposed to chlorine who developed ACS, hemopexin reduced the death rate from 80 percent to 20 percent.3 

At the same time, Dr. Alishlash has started a twice-monthly clinic for sickle cell patients with underlying lung disease. The clinic is very busy, he said. “And patients’ outcomes are improving, which is very encouraging.” 


1 Nourani AR, Rahman AKMF, Pernell B, et al. Nocturnal hypoxemia measured by polysomnogram is associated with acute chest syndrome in pediatric sickle cell disease. J Clin Sleep Med. 2021;17(2):219–226.

2 Alishlash, AS, Rutland, SB, Friedman, AJ, et al. Acute chest syndrome in pediatric sickle cell disease: Associations with racial composition and neighborhood deprivation. Pediatr Blood Cancer. 2021; 68:e28877

3 Alishlash AS, Sapkota M, Ahmad I, et al. Chlorine inhalation induces acute chest syndrome in humanized sickle cell mouse model and ameliorated by postexposure hemopexin. Redox Biol. 2021;44:102009. doi:10.1016/j.redox.2021.102009

Inside Pediatrics, Neurology & Neurosurgery

Pioneering Surgery Spares Parents and Infants from Helmets

The Cleft and Craniofacial Center at Children’s of Alabama is one of the busiest in the country, with some of the most experienced physicians and support staff. From cleft palate to craniosynostosis (a condition in which the skull fuses too early) and complex tumor surgeries, the center draws patients from the entire Southeast region and beyond. It is a truly multidisciplinary group with neurologists, neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons, and a craniofacial pediatrician. 

It also offers state-of-the art therapies, including a new type of endoscopic surgery for craniosynostosis in infants as young as three months that is only performed in a few centers in the U.S. “The typical procedure is an endoscopic release of the craniosynostosis followed by post-operative helmet therapy,” said neurosurgeon James M. Johnston, M.D. “Helmet therapy works well, but kids have to wear it for 23 hours a day, and that can be a lot of work for families, especially when they live far from Birmingham,” he said. In addition, the Alabama Medicaid program, which covers most of these children, does not pay for the helmets, which can cost thousands of dollars (and children often need more than one). This puts tremendous financial strain on many families.  

So Dr. Johnston, joined by neurosurgeon Curtis J. Rozzelle, M.D., and plastic surgeons Rene’ P. Myers, M.D., and John Grant, M.D., brought spring-mediated cranioplasty, which was developed at Wake Forest University, to Children’s. It starts with the same endoscopic craniectomy used for children who would require helmets. Only in this procedure, the plastic surgeon steps in and inserts custom-made springs into the bony defect created by the surgery. The springs work to expand the skull over several months to correct the abnormal head shape and ensure appropriate cranial volume for brain growth. A few months later, the plastic surgeon removes the springs during a same-day surgery.  

“What’s nice is that there’s no need for a helmet,” Dr. Johnston said. Plus, studies show the procedure is just as safe and effective as cranioplasties requiring helmets.1 It’s also covered by all health insurance. “So, we’re able to do it for all children,” he said.  

A similar procedure using cranial distractors like those used to lengthen femurs is used for skull expansion, explained Dr. Grant. This technology is used in older children who need more intracranial volume but who are beyond the age at which the skull can form new bone to fill in surgically created soft spots. By “stretching” the bones of the skull more slowly, he said, the child’s body adjusts by making bone to fill in the growing gap. 

Regardless of the procedure used, early referrals are critical for these babies, said Dr. Rozzelle. “If we can see them by 2 months of age, that gives us plenty of time to get whatever preoperative assessments we need and get them on the schedule so that either the spring or endoscopic craniectomy with subsequent molding helmet is a viable option,” he said. Older babies cannot be treated endoscopically and require standard open surgery, which may lead to more blood loss and longer hospital stays.2 

Yet the craniofacial clinic still sometimes sees babies 6 months or older who never received a diagnosis or whose pediatrician didn’t refer them to Children’s. “That’s frustrating,” Dr. Rozzelle said. 

Nonetheless, said Dr. Myers, “Since we are comfortable with all of the techniques, we can tailor a plan to the individual child. No one is exactly the same.” 


1 Arko L, Swanson JW, Fierst TM, et al. Spring-mediated sagittal craniosynostosis treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: technical notes and literature review. Neurosurg Focus. 2015 May;38(5):E7

2 Hashim PW, Patel A, Yang JF, et al. The effects of whole-vault cranioplasty versus strip craniectomy on long-term neuropsychological outcomes in sagittal craniosynostosis. Plast Reconstr Surg 134:491–501, 2014.

Inside Pediatrics, Neurology & Neurosurgery

Advanced Imaging Enables Complex Surgeries for Epilepsy

If you’re going to conduct surgery on the brains of children with severe epilepsy, you better know what type they have, where they have it, and how it affects function.  

That’s where functional imaging comes in, including single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT), functional MRI (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and magnetoencephalography (MEG). Most neurosurgical centers have one or two; but Children’s of Alabama has them all.  

“This is important,” said pediatric neurosurgeon Jeffrey P. Blount, M.D., “because there is never perfect alignment between the studies.” With multiple studies, however, comes greater certainty about the brain regions the disease impacts, which provides greater certainty about which parts to remove during surgery. Agreement between the scans is called “concordance,” and it is the central concept in epilepsy localization, said Dr. Blount.  

Most patients who require epilepsy surgery also require an invasive monitoring system prior to surgery, said neurosurgeon Curtis J. Rozzelle, M.D. In the past, he explained, that required an open cranial exposure to place electrodes on the surface of the brain and, sometimes, within the brain. 

But with newer techniques, particularly stereoelectroencephalography (SEEG), a minimally invasive surgical procedure used to precisely find the areas of the brain where seizures originate, surgeons can place an array of depth electrodes without performing a craniotomy. Instead, each electrode is placed robotically through a tiny hole drilled in the skull using a robotic stereotactic approach. “That relies very heavily on high-resolution scans,” Dr. Rozelle said, including fusing CT and MRI images, to put the electrodes in without damaging a critical part of the brain. 

“Mostly what we’re trying to avoid is hitting blood vessels with the depth electrodes while getting an array of electrodes that will cover the area of interest,” Dr. Rozelle said. The functional imaging studies are critical in establishing the target zones. Plus, since MEG and fMRI are based on magnetic field fluctuations, the MEG images can be mapped onto the MRI scan in three dimensions. The older technique, in which electrodes were placed on the surface of the brain, only provided a two-dimensional image. 

The child spends several days with the implanted electrodes to capture data about the seizures, which a neurologist then analyzes to identify the exact area of the brain that requires treatment. That surgery itself also relies heavily on high-resolution imaging. A laser ablation, for instance, is performed in the MRI scanner. A larger-volume surgery that requires open resection also relies on imaging because the surgical target looks the same as the normal brain. “To help us ensure that we hit the target, we can map the neurologist analysis into a navigation system that directs us to the right area,” Dr. Rozzelle said. “That ensures that we remove the tissue we need to take out and keep everything else intact.” 

Neurosurgeons at Children’s perform about 50 cranial epilepsy procedures a year, of which about 30 require the invasive monitoring. 

“We are very fortunate to work in a center where we have so much high-quality functional imaging available on a single campus,” said Dr. Blount. 

Inside Pediatrics, Neurology & Neurosurgery

Addressing Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disease from Hydrocephalus

Hydrocephalus-Doctor-Brain-Scans-Resized-V2

Children’s of Alabama neurosurgeon Brandon Rocque, M.D.

It’s not surprising that kids with brain tumors and their parents experience a significant amount of stress and psychological distress during the acute post-diagnosis period. It even has a name: pediatric medical traumatic stress. As Children’s of Alabama neurosurgeon Brandon Rocque, M.D., studied this phenomenon a few years ago, it occurred to him that it would almost certainly apply to children with hydrocephalus. 

“We know that just encountering doctors or the medical system can be traumatic for children,” said Dr. Rocque. “For children, just coming to the hospital can be traumatic enough to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder,” or PTSD. 

Numerous factors contribute to stress, particularly the perceived threat to the child’s life. “Even if there isn’t a threat, the child perceives it as such,” Dr. Rocque said. Add to that separation from their parents, uncertainty about the outcome, and the unpredictability of a serious medical condition. “That describes hydrocephalus extremely well,” he said, because these children are treated with shunts that could become blocked at any time requiring additional medical interventions.  

Symptoms of shunt failure can vary widely. Some children simply have a mild headache; other patients can become extremely sick and be in danger of death within a couple of hours. By age 10, “the average child [with hydrocephalus] has had at least two shunt replacements. This is always hanging over the families,” Dr. Rocque said, putting them and their children at high risk for PTSD. 

To test his hypothesis, Dr. Rocque introduced a screening survey into the hydrocephalus clinic to screen for PTSD as well as anxiety, depression, fatigue and resilience. “We found that, overall, the kids with hydrocephalus are doing pretty well. But the parents are not doing so well,” he said. About one in five parents met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD based on their symptoms. More than half attributed it to their child’s condition.  

So why aren’t the kids as affected? One reason, Dr. Rocque said, is that the children don’t know anything different. They’ve lived their entire lives with the condition and the shunts. “But for parents, there was always something new and the risk that something bad is going to happen to their child,” he said.  

Not all the kids surveyed were fine, however. “Some had issues with PTSD, and those were the ones coming to the hospital more. Those whose shunts weren’t behaving well,” Dr. Rocque said. “We need to be aware that these kids have a higher risk for PTSD.”  

They also found that the children and their patients tested exhibited very little resilience, which can help protect against PTSD.  

A survey conducted in conjunction with the Hydrocephalus Association confirmed their findings.  

Dr. Rocque and his team are now working with the association to develop a program to help reduce the risk of PTSD in patients and their families and with a psychologist who is also the mother of an adult with hydrocephalus to develop a tool to help build resilience in patients and their families.  

“This is the first time anyone has really focused on the psychological comorbidities of this condition,” Dr. Rocque said. “I think it has the potential to have a big effect in our population.” 

Inside Pediatrics, Neurology & Neurosurgery

Exploring the Brain from the Inside Out

Pediatric neurointerventional radiology is a small but growing specialty, one increasingly in use given the growing number of endovascular procedures performed in children with neurovascular conditions. “It’s a niche specialty,” says Jesse Jones, M.D., Children’s of Alabama Chief of Neurointervention. “A lot of doctors don’t know about it—let alone patients.”  

Dr. Jones is part of the hospital’s vascular anomalies team, one of the largest pediatric vascular anomalies programs in the Southeast and the only one in Alabama. He works with an interdisciplinary team of experts specializing in the diagnosis, treatment and ongoing care of all vascular anomalies and is part of the team’s monthly clinic. 

On the adult side, neurointerventional radiologists spend a lot of time removing blood clots from stroke patients. But stroke is rarer in children. The hospital’s neurosurgeons and neurologists more often call on Dr. Jones to evaluate congenital anomalies, including vein of Galen malformation or arteriovenous malformations (AVM), as well as inflammatory disorders like vasculitis or obliterative vasculopathy. “It’s when a child presents with dangerous or unusual neurovascular findings and the team is trying to characterize it and plan future treatment that I come in,” he said. 

Dr. Jones, who completed a residency and two fellowships, uses minimally invasive techniques to diagnose and treat numerous neurovascular conditions, including stroke and AVM, but also aneurysms, and lympho-vascular proliferations of the head and neckThe beauty of his approach is that it helps avoid open incisions, reducing the risk of complications and enabling kids to go home sooner. 

His interest in pediatric medicine started with his grandfather, who was a pediatrician. “I looked up to the work he did treating children,” Dr. Jones said. “Working with adults can get frustrating because many conditions they have could have been avoided with lifestyle changes. But in children, they bear no responsibility.” 

Dr. Jones also knew he wanted to do something with the brain. “I’m fascinated with how the brain works,” he said. “It’s a miraculous organ and even after all these years of study still a bit of an enigma.” Being involved in a neuroscience-related field and interacting with other specialists who study the brain is intellectually stimulating, he said. “It’s the best of both worlds: I get to use my hands as an interventional radiologist and work with the brain too.” 

And, of course, work with children.