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Roald Dahl: His Little Known Stunt with the Shunt


December 17, 2016

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By Rory Devlin

Roald Dahl; a name that resonates with generations of children and adults alike for his heartwarming and timeless stories, such as Matilda and James and the Giant Peach. With countless renowned titles under his belt, Dahl has long been known as an author of wonderful and whimsical stories, but not many know him as a contributor to modern medicine.

In 1960, before he had become a household name, Dahl was a writer of adult novels that often involved much more serious plot twists then that of The Fantastic Mr. Fox (those of which were not nearly as popular as his later titles). However, something occurred in his life that year that would forever change the author’s trajectory.

While crossing the street in New York City, a taxi struck a carriage holding Dahl’s four-month-old son, Theo. The infant was thrown almost forty feet from the carriage, which resulted in multiple skull fractures and injuries to his brain. After being rushed to New Lenox Hospital, Theo’s injuries had caused secondary hydrocephalus; a condition which causes a buildup of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) on the brain. Doctors treated Theo with a Holter shunt, a cerebral shunt device that is implanted in the cerebellum to reroute the excess fluid. Shortly after the shunt placement, Theo’s hydrocephalus stabilized but not for long.

A cerebral shunt has and remains to be one of the only effective treatments for hydrocephalus.

When a shunt is situated, a catheter is placed into the cerebellum, and a tube is placed under the skin at the back of the neck. The tube then drains excess fluid out of the brain and into the chest or abdomen cavities, allowing for a safe place for the fluid to drain. Without a shunt, a person who suffers from hydrocephalus can succumb to an intracranial hematoma, crushed brain tissue or too much cranial pressure, all of which can cause severe brain damage and/or death.

After some time had gone by, Dahl noticed that Theo had stopped smiling, and his eyes held a panicked and confused look. After being rushed back to the hospital, doctors discovered that the shunt was being obstructed by cerebral tissue that could not pass through it.

The fluid that was being drained from Theo’s shunt was getting stuck in cumbersome silicon vents that were commonly used in the original Holter shunt, leaving his father wondering if there could be any improvements made on the technology keeping his son alive. This would happen six more times over the following nine months, and each time it would leave Theo temporary blind and at risk for permanent brain damage.

Dahl requested the help of a friend—Mr. Stanley Wade, a hydraulic engineer and fellow model airplane enthusiast—to look into improving young Theo’s shunt. Wade was an expert in precision hydraulic engineering. In addition to building his own model aircraft engines, Wade ran a factory at High Wycombe, UK. There, they produced precision hydraulic pumps.

With Dahl coordinating the efforts, Wade engineering the new system and the observance of Theo’s neurosurgeon Kenneth Till, the team developed a moving mechanism that could open and close under pressure. The new system was used in the shunt as a more efficient way of expelling fluid that was previously getting stuck. After much preparation and trial-and-error, the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve was born.

Different types of cerebral shunts have since been developed in more recent decades, and modern medical technology has since surpassed Dahl’s design, but the Wade-Dahl-Till version was responsible for saving nearly 3,000 people in need of hydrocephalus treatments several years after its creation.

Theo runs his father’s estate and his charity organization, Roald Dahl’s Marvelous Children’s Charity. He also visits England every year to help celebrate the late author’s honorary holiday, Roald Dahl Day. He currently resides in Naples, Florida with his wife Madeleine and his daughter Alexa.

Theo runs his father’s estate and his charity organization, Roald Dahl’s Marvelous Children’s Charity. He also visits England every year to help celebrate the late author’s honorary holiday, Roald Dahl Day.


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