Brain surgery gives son of Eagles president relief from epilepsy

Jason Banner (center) and family: Parents Joe and Helaine; sister, Jill; and brother, Jonathan. Jason will be speaking at a fund-raiser for Children's Hospital May 3.
Jason Banner (center) and family: Parents Joe and Helaine; sister, Jill; and brother, Jonathan. Jason will be speaking at a fund-raiser for Children's Hospital May 3. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 22, 2012

In the early morning hours before the start of the second day of the 2005 NFL draft, Joe Banner awoke to a crash . . . crash . . . crash.

By the time Banner reached the hallway, the pounding had stopped. His 10-year-old son, Jason, was sprawled on the bathroom tile.

"I found him in the bathroom, on the floor and totally incoherent," Banner said.

Jason was having a seizure and had been stumbling into walls. His father thought it might be a stroke.

The Banner family rushed to the emergency room at Children's Hospital. Along the way, Jason vomited several times.

A day later, after a battery of tests, Banner, his wife, Helaine, and Jason were told it was epilepsy.

"I think every parent lives in fear of their children's health," said Banner, president of the Eagles and a father of three. "And we're both going, 'Oh, my God, we're experiencing every parent's worst nightmare.' "

For the next five years, Jason experienced near-daily seizures. The headaches that followed were debilitating. After exhausting almost every approach to control the seizures, the Banners finally agreed to brain surgery, even though there were risks and a 40 percent chance that it might not work.

"It certainly takes a while for a family to think that they would be willing to allow anybody to open their kid's skull and remove a piece of the brain, knowing full well if you're wrong you can't stick it back in," said Lawrence Brown, associate professor of neurology and pediatrics at Children's Hospital.

The procedure worked. While Jason, now 17, still lives with trepidation, he has not had a seizure or headache in 15 months. He wants to tell his story. His father, a very public figure in this Eagles-obsessed town, initially balked at the notion.

But the Banners, following Jason's lead, never kept their son's condition a secret from their family, friends, and colleagues - in spite of the stigma sometimes attached to epilepsy. The perfect opportunity to go public came in the form of Daisy Day, a volunteer fund-raising effort benefiting Children's Hospital.

The annual campaign, which began in 1953, selected Children's division of neurosurgery as this year's beneficiary. Helaine Banner, a member of the Daisy Day committee even before her son's epilepsy was diagnosed, approached her husband about cosponsoring the event.

The Banners, to express their gratitude to Children's, have donated $100,000 and raised an additional $200,000 for Daisy Day. A luncheon, scheduled for May 3, is expected to push proceeds up to $1.3 million.

Jason, who can now envision a life unencumbered by seizures and the constraints placed on his social, academic, and general well-being, will be one of two featured speakers at the luncheon.

The other will be his neurosurgeon, Phillip B. Storm.

"I love telling the story," Jason said. "It's just an interesting story. It can happen to anybody."

Zoned out

Jason is just one of three million Americans affected by epilepsy and seizures, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. Seventy percent of those afflicted can have their seizures controlled by medicine; the rest cannot.

Many people associate seizures with shaking or convulsing or the type of behavior Banner exhibited the night of the draft seven years ago. But there are variations. Two years earlier, when Jason was 8, he started experiencing spells in which his face would freeze and he couldn't talk.

He tried to convey what was happening to his parents, but it only looked as if he was zoning out, staring off into space. The Banners took their son to Children's, and an initial electroencephalogram was normal.

But on the morning of April 24, 2005, he awakened disoriented.

"I remember waking up and having no idea where I was and knowing that I needed to go to the bathroom, and running into my closet, running into my dresser, walking out the door, almost running into [his brother Jonathan's] room, which is right across the hall, smashing into the wall," Jason said.

After the trip to the Children's emergency room, Jason was admitted. He was placed in a video-monitored room and had electrodes attached to his head so that a magnetic resonance image could capture a seizure.

"The MRI was able to show an old area of injury that to this day we still don't know what caused it," said Brown, who has treated Jason since 2005. "It may actually go back to before he was born."

When chronicling his seven-year bout with epilepsy, Jason often marks certain milestones with Eagles games. But for his father, the 2005 draft stands out. There is the first day and there is the second day - the before and the after.

Joe Banner, needless to say, wasn't in the Eagles' "war room" for the second day of that draft.

"That was rough," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "That was rough on him."

Reid empathized with his colleague. Two years later, he took a leave after his two oldest sons were charged in separate incidents of assault and drug possession.

"They are two different situations, but the bottom line is you worry," Reid said. "You have to make some decisions in both cases that you don't know are right or wrong. There's no book on it."

Helaine Banner's father has epilepsy, though the family is private about it. But she thought that her son's seizures could be controlled by medication, as her father's have been for the most part.

"My dad was lucky enough to have his under control, but you knew right away that this was a life-changing moment," Helaine Banner said. "Your child is not going to have the life that you pictured."

While it can be genetic, Jason's epilepsy was not. And unlike his grandfather, Banner's seizures did not stop after years of trial and error with medicines.

Choosing surgery

The majority of Jason's seizures left him staring blankly. But it was the headaches, which Brown said were later determined be seizures in themselves, that were incapacitating.

"It controlled my life," Jason said. "I didn't do things, because I didn't want to have a seizure at this place or go here because I didn't want to have a seizure in front of people."

He missed extended periods of school, first at Gladwyne Elementary and then at Delaware Valley Friends. He now attends Harriton High in Lower Merion.

He often had seizures during his soccer games, as he was playing goalie.

Every time the Banners would think a combination of medicines was working - the longest Jason went without a seizure was a few months - the problem would resurface.

Brown had suggested surgery for some time, but the Banners needed convincing. Before they could even give their consent, however, Jason had to be a candidate for what Brown said was an "increasingly common and still remarkably unusual" operation.

"We certainly do less than 50 surgeries a year, and we see thousands of kids with epilepsy. [Many] would benefit from the surgery [but] are not quite ready or we can't prove it or the parents and guardians feel like they can't consider it, for whatever reason," Brown said.

The MRI clearly showed the abnormality on Jason's brain, Brown said. But a magnetoencephalography (MEG), a more advanced technique for mapping brain activity, was recommended.

Children's Hospital has two MEG machines, but the first one - and the one used on Jason - was coincidentally funded by a donation from Eagles owners Jeffrey and Christina Lurie.

Jeffrey Lurie's brother has autism. The Luries have given millions to aid autism research. That was their original intent in helping fund the purchase of the machine.

"It was fortuitous," Christina Lurie said.

The MEG not only allowed Children's to pinpoint a lesion, but it also gave doctors a map of the area on Jason's brain that they would be removing, according to Brown.

"Everything we did was trying to prove that not only is it important to remove that part of the brain . . . but also not remove that part of the nearby brain that was essential," Brown said.

The Banners sought out second opinions in New York and Boston. Helaine and her daughter, Jill, meanwhile, were initially against surgery. But the Banners ultimately left the decision up to Jason, who was 15 at the time.

"There was a point where I said, 'I don't care what the risks are or anything,' " Jason said. " 'Whatever it takes, I want to get rid of this.' . . . I didn't even care about the risks - blind, death, anything. I didn't want to have any more seizures."

A miracle

There were actually two surgeries. The first allowed Storm to attach wires to the left frontal lobe of Jason's brain to pinpoint the exact location of the lesion. During the second, a week later, it was removed.

Jason, in the intensive-care unit for most of the week, struggled after the first surgery. He vomited continuously from a reaction to the anesthesia and could not eat.

"You're just weeping," Joe Banner said. "It's hard to even believe this is your kid and you're doing a good thing."

Jason's recovery from the second operation went remarkably well. All told, he spent 13 days at Children's. His father left the hospital only once, to go home and clean up.

Joe Banner did not travel to an Eagles road game at Dallas that December. The day the Banners brought their son home, the Birds were at the Meadowlands playing the Giants.

The Eagles fell behind, 24-3. About the same time, Jason started to get an allergic rash from medication. But the Eagles started to come back, and miraculously won the game when DeSean Jackson returned a punt for a touchdown as time expired.

"We're literally on the phone with the emergency room: 'Do we need to bring him in right away?' " Joe Banner recalled. "DeSean returns the punt, we had a five-minute celebration, got dressed, and drove to the emergency room."

As great as the experience of Jackson's game-winner was - Banner's sons are, naturally, diehard Eagles fans - it pales in comparison to the last 15 months. Jason doesn't want to brag. His father does it for him.

"Give yourself a break," Joe Banner said. "He's made the honor roll every semester this year after missing most of six years of school. He's the captain of the junior varsity soccer team. He's living a normal life and doing really well at it."

For years, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to go away for college, let alone meet the requirements. Now he dreams of attending the University of Hawaii.

"They won't let me go because it's too far," Jason said.

The 17-year old, who resembles actor Jake Gyllenhaal when he smiles, then glanced at his parents.

"I'm just happy," Joe Banner said, "that he has his wonderful smile back."


Contact Jeff McLane

at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com,

or on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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