The word hydrocephalus is derived from the Greek words for water (hydro) and head (kefalos).  The two put together explain the old reference to hydrocephalus being “water on the brain”.  Actually it’s not water that is in the brain in hydrocephalus, but rather CSF (cerebrospinal fluid).

In a normal central nervous system, the CSF flows between the brain and spinal cord freely, and acts as a cushion to protect the brain.  In Lizzie’s case, the natural drain between the brain and the spinal cord (the Aqueduct of Silvius), is too small to allow the fluid to flow as it should, causing the fluid to back-up (hydrocephalus).  This condition is called aqueductal stenosis.

Treatment for this condition happens by way of a shunt.  A shunt is a device surgically implanted by a neurosurgeon.  It is a plastic tube that has a pressure operated valve at one end, and moves the fluid to another area of the body.  Two common types of shunts are VA (ventriculo-atrial) shunts which take the fluid from the ventricles of the brain to the right atrium of the heart, and VP (ventriculo-peritoneal) shunts which take the fluid to the peritoneal cavity (abdominal area).  Lizzie has a VP shunt.  Hers is programmable, which means that the pressure valve can be adjusted from the outside by a very expensive and high-powered magnet in the hospital or our neurosurgeon’s office.

The shunt’s job is to protect the brain from the pressure getting too high and causing damage.  The way it works is when the pressure from building fluid gets too high, the valve opens and the excess fluid is taken to the other end, where it can be reabsorbed by the body as it should.

With a properly working shunt, most people with hydrocephalus can live a relatively normal life.  In Lizzie’s case, there was way too much fluid in her brain before she was even born.  As a result, not only were parts of her brain damaged; some parts didn’t get the chance to form properly to begin with.  This is why Lizzie has so many issues.