A pretty blond music student has a violent convulsion one day in class. Rushed to the hospital, she comes under the care of a brilliant, hot-tempered neurosurgeon. The diagnosis: a benign brain tumor under the left temporal lobe of her brain affecting speech. During the operation, everything that can go wrong does—and the patient winds up in a coma.
It sounds like Dr. Kildare Meets All My Children. But Seizure, a CBS movie scheduled for Jan. 9 and starring Penelope Milford, is not just another TV tale of woe. Based on Charles Mee's widely acclaimed book of the same name, it is the true story of a courageous young woman named Kathy Morris.
In early 1976 Morris was preparing to graduate from New York's Manhattan School of Music. A 22-year-old mezzo-soprano, she was rehearsing for a final recital in which she had to sing opera in five languages. Suddenly she began to lose all feeling and collapsed on the stage. "I was conscious through it all," she recalls, "and wondered if it was an epileptic fit. In the weeks before, I had been forgetting names, but I attributed that to the pressure of preparing for the recital."
Before going under the knife at St. Luke's Hospital, Kathy fretted "about whether I would be able to sing again. If I couldn't, I didn't know if I wanted to do anything else." Her doctor, James Hughes (called Dr. Cunnought on TV and in the book, for reasons of medical ethics), assured her the surgery was "a piece of cake." But mid-operation, Kathy's brain began to swell uncontrollably. When all the normal procedures to reduce the swelling failed, Hughes began to sew her up. It was then that he realized the skin would not stretch over the expanded brain. "I had to remove part of the brain to close the head," he recalls. Hughes plunged two fingers into Morris' incision and scooped out dead brain matter (enough to fill a small child's hand). Then he hurled it against the OR wall, which was unorthodox to say the least. "It was an expression of my anger, my utter helplessness at the futility of the situation," Dr. Hughes now says.
After the wound was closed, he left the operating room, assuming Morris was "dead, severely paralyzed or in a permanent vegetable state." But several hours later, she miraculously showed signs of life, reacting to light and pain. Morris could not speak until she had undergone two more operations—also performed by Dr. Hughes. "I knew I had to get better," Kathy says. "I had things to do."
One was to complete that music degree. Several months after her third operation, she moved back to the family home in Clifton, N.J. Under brother Patrick's watchful eye (her mother died in 1963 and her father in 1974), Morris learned to read and write again. She probably will never be able to read at normal adult speeds and may always have trouble retaining and comprehending written facts, even song lyrics. Nevertheless, in May 1978 Morris was awarded that long-hoped-for diploma. And last summer she performed pop and jazz numbers on the guitar (opera no longer interests her) at Manhattan's Grand Finale club. An album is in the works, too.
Looking back on her ordeal, Morris tries to be philosophical. She refuses to blame anyone and has never contemplated a malpractice suit against her surgeon. "I still don't know who screwed up," she reflects. "But I've gone through so many changes since the operation that I can't waste precious time wondering."