It happened to a little girl in Houston, and she lost her sight. But doctors used an innovative technique to help the girl see again.
Just weeks ago, four-year-old Hailey Ybarbo was screaming in pain and going blind.
"Her screaming in pain, the yelling -- I didn't know what was going on," said her mother, Ashley Leger.
UTHealth neurologist Dr. Ian Butler figured it out. Ybarbo had an ear infection that turned deadly when the infection spread to the bone behind the ear.
"If it spreads inwards, there's a big vein and there's blood vessels as well that are right near it and so that becomes inflamed and then it basically clotted off," Dr. Butler said.
It's called a venous sinus occlusion. Hailey not only faced blindness, but also a hemorrhage from blood that was backing up in her brain.
"I never thought an earache would cause all these problems. She never even complained at all. It's just horrible," Leger said.
Antibiotics didn't work. So surgeons usually put a shunt into the brain to drain it. But to spare her that, neurosurgeon Dr. Roc Chen came up with something new; he decided to clear the blockage like a heart blockage, using a tiny balloon. He threaded a balloon catheter into her brain and inflated the balloon, forcing the blood vessel open.
Minutes after surgery, they knew it had worked.
"She was no longer screaming , no longer having headaches; she was comfortable and playful," Dr. Chen said.
Ybarbo currently wears a patch to help her eyes align. But Dr. Chen believes her vision will be completely restored.
"Which is really remarkable," he said.
And Ybarbo went home cured, without having a shunt in her brain for the rest of her life.
Venous sinus occlusion is not just a rare complication from an ear infection. Doctors say women taking contraceptives, and smokers are also at increased risk for it.