SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Four-year-old Mary Claire Threatt’s protective helmet perfectly matches her pink dancing leotard.
She had fun decorating it with princess stickers and sparkly letters that spell out her initials, and she knows that her new helmet is a necessary accessory any time she leaves the house.
“So I don’t bump my head,” she said.
Mary Claire, who lives with her family in Boiling Springs, S.C., still is recovering from cranial vault reconstruction surgery – a six-hour procedure during which surgeons broke her skull into rectangular puzzle pieces, leaving space between them because her brain needed room to grow.
Mary Claire was diagnosed with Crouzon syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by craniosynostosis – the premature fusion of the skull and facial bones. Craniosynostosis occurs in roughly one out of every 2,000 births.
Monica Threatt said that she and her husband, Geoffrey, never had any inclination that Mary Claire, the youngest of their three children, was anything other than a normal child. She met all of her developmental milestones and was happy and healthy.
“I knew that her facial features were different than the other two (children), but I never imagined there was a medical reason,” said Monica, a fifth-grade teacher.
The family was urged at end of July to check with a doctor after seeing a local orthodontist about Mary Claire’s prominent overbite. The orthodontist wanted to rule out a skeletal cause before moving forward with corrective treatment.
A series of tests at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, S.C., confirmed that Mary Claire was facing more than dental work. Her parents were told that Mary Claire’s soft spots closed too early, and scans showed indentations inside her skull, caused as her brain looked for room to grow.
“(Doctors) were surprised that she could see, that she hadn’t complained of being in pain and that she hadn’t had any headaches,” Monica said. “They said her brain was fine, but she was out of room.”
A team of nine doctors took on Mary Claire’s case. They were reassuring and optimistic of the outcome, Monica said.
“We were so thankful the whole time that there wasn’t anything wrong – detrimentally wrong,” Monica said. “What was wrong with her, we could fix.”
On Oct. 12, Mary Clare fearlessly drove herself into the operating room in a red, toy Corvette. A successful surgery expanded her skull by 7 percent.
Monica said she was surprised how quickly her daughter bounced back, and after about a week in the hospital, Mary Claire was cleared to go home. Two days later, the resilient, helmet-clad patient was cautiously reunited with her 4-year-old kindergarten class for a field trip to the pumpkin patch.
“We thought we were going to come home with an invalid,” Monica said. “A week later, we were at the pumpkin patch. She did great. She had the best time.”
Mary Claire returned to dance class after about three weeks – earlier than expected.
“She loves it,” Monica said. “She loves coming to dance.”
Her mother said Mary Claire couldn’t stand being away from her friends, who kept in touch with an upbeat “get well” video. Still, she has to be careful while dancing – a combination of tap, ballet, creative movement and tumbling. No tumbling is allowed while healing continues.
“Other than that, she’s the same child she was when she left,” said Terri Teele Oliver, owner and instructor at The Teele School of Dance. “She’s got high energy.”