The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

January 2, 2013

Student spends holiday break in hospital

By Kim West

— Seven-year-old Robert Witherow is a straight-A student at Cedar Hill Elementary School who enjoys playing baseball and basketball and the popular video game Skylanders.

Robert was looking forward to the holiday break when he had a seizure and stopped breathing at his family home in Ardmore Dec. 18.

The young boy, who does not have a history of seizures or epilepsy, has spent the past two weeks in the pediatric intensive care unit at Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children, where his team of doctors has been trying to control his rampant seizures.

“They’ve been giving him different drugs to stop the seizures but they’re having trouble shutting down the seizures,” said his father, Stacey, who also has 11-year-old and 9-year-old sons and a 4-year-old daughter with his wife Theresia. “They’re using pentobarbital to try and cool down his brain and slow his electromagnetic activity.”

Robert was born with a mild heart condition, but Stacey said his youngest son has not had any complications since then and there is no known connection to his current medical issues.

“He has mild pulmonary stenosis,” he said. “There was a problem with a valve in his heart when he was born, and (doctors) had to run a balloon through the valve in his heart to open up the valve. He sees a cardiologist, but it’s been very mild and hasn’t been a problem for him.”

Hospital stay

During the first week of his hospital stay, Robert was conscious and reactive some days, but in the past week he has been in a medical coma.

“He is all pin-cushioned up,” Stacey said. “They have him intubated and on a ventilator, and he has a breathing tube. If they can’t get the seizures stopped, then he doesn’t have a chance, basically.”

Stacey said doctors are unsure what has caused his son, whom he calls Robby and describes as “a real smart and sweet boy,” to have the seizures. His team of doctors, which include a pediatric neurologist, ruled out a bacterial infection and were trying to pinpoint a virus as a possible cause.

Robert had two spinal taps and both batches were sent to the Mayo Clinic in Ohio. The first batch came back negative, and the family should receive the results from the second test by Thursday.

Stopping the seizures

According to, a seizure is caused by abnormal brain signals. Nerve cells in the brain send electrical and chemical signals to each other on a regular basis and when a wayward electrical signal is sent, it can cause other brain cells to send unusual signals. If enough of these are sent, it will trigger a seizure.

“He had a couple of seizures (Monday) morning but they were short in duration and not real bad,” Stacey said. “They want to get him to go 48 hours without a seizure and it would’ve been 48 hours (Monday) afternoon.”

Stacey said doctors are currently altering his diet from PediaSure to a carbohydrate-free diet, which in some cases can help decrease seizures.

“They want to get his brain cooled off and see if they can get the seizures to stop,” he said. “They don’t believe it’s a virus at this point. Right now they believe the seizures were induced by the fever he had, and for some reason his body hasn’t been able to handle the reaction.”

Community fund

Stacey, who works full-time as a delivery driver for Papa John’s, has been unable to work since Robert was hospitalized two weeks ago, and his wife is a stay-at-home mother.

“The kids have mostly been staying with my parents and sometimes with my wife’s parents,” he said. “We had a little celebration Christmas Eve, but we’re just planning to put off Santa Claus until Robby gets home.”

To help defray medical expenses, friends of the Witherow family set up a community fund at the First National Bank locations in Athens and Ardmore. Within four business days, the fund had reached $750, according to bank officials.

For more information, contact First National Bank at 256-216-6373.