SPARTANBURG, SC — 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, is still recovering from cranial vault reconstruction surgery – a 6-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 at Boiling Springs Intermediate School.
The family was advised to check with a doctor toward the end of July, only after seeing a local orthodontist about Mary Claire’s prominent overbite. He wanted to rule out a skeletal cause before moving forward with corrective treatment.
A series of tests conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston 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, hours-long 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 from Carlisle-Foster’s Grove 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, and Mary Claire will need to wear the helmet at least through January.
“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.”
Oliver said that Mary Claire’s classmates have been curious, but understanding.
“They all went over and asked if they could touch her helmet. If they could look at her helmet,” Oliver said.
In about three more years, Mary Claire will need another surgery to expand the mid-section of her face. Monica said doctors have told them that there should be no long-term effects.