Young man karate-kicks and skateboards his way back from a
life-threatening brain disorder
Ian Yates, 7, had bumped his head horsing around with a cousin. A few weeks later, he started seeing double, vomiting and staggering when he walked. He told his parents his head hurt like it was going to explode. A visit to the ER resulted in the discovery of a rogue mass of blood vessels in Yates’ brain that had begun bleeding.
After he awoke from the lengthy surgery to remove the mass, Yates—who had been a karate-kicking boy known as “motor mouth”—could barely move or speak.
“It was like having a newborn baby,” says his mom, Veronica. “He couldn’t sit, stand, hold up his head. He couldn’t even swallow.”
The cause, a tangled-spaghetti clump of vessels called a cavernous malformation, was non-cancerous. But it was on Yates’ brainstem, a key bit of brain that regulates basic functions like heartbeat and breathing. If it hadn’t been caught, it could have caused a permanent disability, coma—even death.
Yates was helicoptered to Barrow Neurological Institute, where Peter Nakaji, MD, an expert in cavernous malformations, performed the surgery.
“It was a little less than eight hours, though I am sure it seemed longer to his parents,” Dr. Nakaji says. “The location was tricky, in the upper brainstem, but fortunately we were able to get good access and remove it completely.”
Then came the hardest part for Yates and his family: recovering.
“I remember waking up thinking, ‘Where am I?’ and seeing my parents,” says Yates, now a seventh-grader at Hillcrest Middle School in Glendale. “I tried to talk, but nothing came out.”
Yates was experiencing a rare complication called cerebellar mutism. The causes are unknown, but those affected by it always recover their speech eventually, according to the Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation. Yates’ returned about 10 days later.
“One morning I woke up and said, ‘Good morning. … Mom! I just talked!’”
Yates then spent four weeks in the Deborah and Bruce Downey Neurorehabilitation Center, working eight hours a day with therapists. His mother took leave from her job in JC Penney’s human-resources office. One parent was with him all the time, spending nights on the recliner in his room, while the other was home with Yates’ little brother, Alec, who was 2.
For his mom, the low point came watching Yates play catch with a therapist.
“I went outside and called my sister, ‘This was a kid who two months ago was so vibrant. Now he can barely throw a ball,’” she says.
But Yates progressed quickly. After formal therapy ended, and he came home, he resumed karate and skateboarding—“sneaky therapy,” dad, John, calls it. He sometimes ignored his left side, one time breaking his elbow when he fell and didn’t instinctively put out both arms to stop it. But karate required him to kick and punch with his left side. Skateboarding required balance.
The first time Yates karate-kicked after his surgery, he fell. But he persisted. Before surgery, he had earned a yellow belt, the second belt after white. After surgery, he continued through the spectrum—orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown—until he achieved the ultimate, black. It took five years. The instructors didn’t cut Yates any slack for having had brain surgery. He failed his first attempt to get his brown belt.
“I just kept trying at it, and I finally got it,” he says.
For his black belt, he had to perform an arduous routine that included 75 push-ups, 75 squats, five flawless katas (fighting sequences) and five rounds sparring with an adult sensei.
His father says, “He’s got a great attitude: ‘I don’t care how long it takes, I’m going to get it done.’”
Yates no longer practices karate—“After the black belt, I felt there was really nothing left to do,” he says—but is obsessed with skateboarding and BMX biking.
He has a tiny scar behind his right ear and must get an MRI every three years. Dr. Nakaji has reassured his parents that there is no evidence of any remaining cavernous malformation in Yates’ brain and that he is most likely cured for life.
Veronica says, “It was just dumb luck he had fallen in the first place. Now I’m the biggest believer in dumb luck.”