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Burton beats brain surgery odds

Man given no chance for normal life has lived well for 26 years

Staff writer

Former Marion resident Bill Burton has reminders of Dec. 16, 1985 all over his head, neck, and torso.

A shunt tube runs from the base of his skull, disappears within his brain, and reappears as it spirals down the base of his neck into his chest.

He can tap the right side of his head and make an audible noise. He said his head is hollow on that side, where a portion of his brain was removed.

He can feel the places where brain surgeons drilled 18 to 19 holes in his head.

He had no qualms about displaying an X-Ray of his head after the surgery. Eighteen metal clips, which look like rice on the translucent sheet, hold together segments of his brain.

These are just reminders not signifiers of a life lost. More than 26 years ago multiple doctors predicted imminent death.

He thanks God every day that he survived a massive cerebral hemorrhage when he 47.

“He’s the one who’s done it,” Burton said.

Dec. 16, 1985 was a snowy day in Scio, Ohio not unlike other blustery days in the small eastern Ohio town. With a sheet of snow already in place, Burton went out on the grounds of his farm to cut fire wood with a chain saw.

After working for a while, he began to feel dizzy. He shut off his machine and sat down. His head began to ache. He touched his hand to his cheek and blood was streaming down his face. He decided to lay down in the snow. He said he heard a voice, he thinks it could have been God, telling him to lie in the snow.

“He had never even had a headache,” Charlotte Burton, Bill’s wife said.

Bill Burton did not realize that a previously undiagnosed genetic anomaly had finally appeared. He was born with a cerebral arteriovenous malformation. A vein and artery in his brain were linked together. The condition appears in less than 1 percent of people.

When Burton lay in the snow, doctors later hypothesized that he had a seizure, the first of his life, and that the malformation caused a massive cerebral hemorrhage, causing him to bleed from every orifice.

Doctors also said Burton’s decision to lay in snow may have temporarily reduced the swelling in his brain, saving his life.

When Burton awoke, he was disoriented but he loaded his tractor and drove back home. He met Charlotte inside the house and she asked if he had been hit by a tree.

“I don’t know what’s wrong,” he said.

Charlotte Burton quickly drove him to a local hospital about five miles away, down the hilly snow-covered streets. The local doctor told the couple that he needed to get to a larger hospital immediately and asked Burton to ride in the ambulance. He refused because a patient had died in an ambulance crash a week earlier.

The doctor did not think Burton would survive the trip.

Charlotte Burton drove her husband in their pickup truck to a larger hospital, stopping once in Scio because the blood rushing from his brain made him violently ill. They made it to Cadiz and physicians there told her they needed to take Burton to one of four larger cities — Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh, or Wheeling, W. Va. Charlotte chose Wheeling and he was taken in a 4x4 ambulance east along U.S. 70.

By now, the winter storm had morphed into a full blizzard. A helicopter was incapable of airlifting Burton to a hospital. Although his hastily worsening condition, the horrendous winter weather, and Burton’s refusal to be transported all seemed to be working against him, Charlotte Burton was not worried as she followed the ambulance down the ice-covered highway.

“It was like I heard a voice say everything it’s going to be O.K.,” she said. “You didn’t stop to think about what tomorrow was going to bring.”

The reason she chose Wheeling Hospital is because her 13-year-old daughter Robin had been at Wheeling after a car accident in 1983. Although she died about 10 months before Bill’s cerebral hemorrhage from injuries incurred in the wreck, Charlotte Burton said the doctors, nurses, and staff at Wheeling had been excellent, especially a brain surgeon named Reza Asli.

Charlotte Burton thought about how situations have had a way of working out in a way that was positive, even out of the worst possible circumstances. After Robin died, she pleaded with doctors at Wheeling to insert her into the organ donor program. Because of the injuries the only organs that could be harvested were Robin’s eyes.

A short time later, a local high school aged boy was involved in a car accident and was in danger of losing one of his eyes. Charlotte went to the parents of the boy and offered one of Robin’s eyes. Later that year the boy created an art project, which still hangs in the governor’s mansion in Columbus. The Burtons watched him graduate.

“I never got to see Robin graduate but I got to see a part of her graduate,” Charlotte said.

As she struggled on the icy highway, she heard chatter over her CB radio from trucks in the storm. She put a message over the radio asking the truckers to help her husband in the ambulance; Burton was a former trucker.

Semi trucks formed a convoy around the two vehicles and escorted them into Wheeling, one truck going as far as the exit ramp.

When they reached the hospital, Burton went in surgery and a shunt was placed into his head to drain the blood and reduce the swelling in his brain.

With the immediate danger subsided, Asli wanted to perform the surgery on Jan. 2 when his best team would all return from the holidays.

He said the surgery was necessary, including a procedure to cut off the top of Bill’s head, and it would require 18 to 20 hours.

He gave Burton a 1 and 100 chance of living, and no chance of coming back normal.

A day before the surgery, Burton signed a will and other documents in case he died.

“You either knew you was going to make it or you wasn’t,” Burton said.

Charlotte Burton started out in the upper room to watch the surgery, which began at 4:30 a.m., from an observation post, but she quickly moved to the waiting room outside of the intensive care unit.

Asli emerged down the hall 17 hours and she thought Burton was gone.

“I remember looking at my watch and having my heart sink to my stomach,” Charlotte Burton said. “He saw my face and he started smiling and shook his head. He thought the surgery had gone well.”

However, there was still a moment of truth when Bill woke up. Immediately, he could speak clearly. He identified Charlotte, his sister Judy, and his neighbor, Lil, in the room. Because he was so dehydrated he asked Lil for a popsicle from her purse. He knew she carried them because she was foster parent.

“That was Bill,” Charlotte Burton said. “That was his personality.”

Burton left the hospital Jan. 16. He remembers the Moundville prison riot because it was the constant news on television. He remembers his brother arriving in a milk truck and not being able to park.

He also remembers thanking Asli for performing the successful surgery.

“Don’t thank me; thank the man upstairs,” Asli responded. “It was all Him.”

At his first opportunity, Burton opened a Bible and his finger automatically landed on Mark 5:19:

“Jesus did not let him, but said, ‘Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’”

With that sign Burton was inspired and has given a testimony about the surgery many times at different churches.

It took him some time to get his weight back, from 69 pounds to his normal 132. Right after the surgery he would also act and say strange things at home.

Eventually with therapy, including a self-induced treatment of counting of all 32 ceiling tiles in the Burton living room, Burton recovered all of his mental faculties.

There are some lasting problems. He struggles with short-term memory and said he is especially forgetful when he gets up in front of large crowd, like at church. He is also prone to seizures, the last of which he suffered attempting farm work in Ohio before the Burtons moved.

However, these results are minor compared to what an experienced surgeon like Asli thought would happen.

Burton is currently 73 years old. He and Charlotte have raised five children and 76 foster children, including two the couple adopted.

They moved to Marion in 1991 and opened a bait shop he operated until 2003. They have since moved to Newton where they work together at Mid-Continent Cabinetry in Newton.

“We’ve lived a good life,” Charlotte said. “With good friends and family.”

Last modified Jan. 18, 2012

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