by Tony di Martino
Robyn Reed knew something was wrong when her daughter, Hailey, complained of seeing two princesses while watching The Princess and the Popstar, a Barbie movie. Not wanting to worry her mom, the 5-year-old quickly said she was just kidding. But a couple of months later after a routine tonsillectomy, Hailey woke up screaming in pain, hitting herself repeatedly on the back of her head. “We thought it was a side effect of the pain meds she was taking,” Reed says. Two weeks later, she still hadn’t recovered from the tonsillectomy and was experiencing frequent vomiting, dizzy spells and blurred vision.
A brain scan showed Hailey had a large tumor. The ER physician immediately sent the family to Dr. Samer Elbabaa of SLUCare, the physicians of Saint Louis University. “Hailey’s tumor was larger than a golf ball and located in her cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance and movement coordination,” says Elbabaa, Reinert chair of pediatric neurosurgery, associate professor of neurosurgery and director of pediatric neurosurgery at SLU School of Medicine and SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. “We operated on her the very next day and discovered she had a juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma, as I’d suspected. It’s a low-grade, slow-growing tumor that creates fluid buildup in the brain.” The surgery, an intricate procedure using microsurgical techniques, computer navigation and nerve monitoring, took nine hours. “One false move, and Hailey could have been disabled for life,” he notes. “I’m a father, and I cared for her like one of my own. My goal, as always, was to get her back on the playground as soon as possible.”
Every day nine kids in the U.S. are diagnosed with a brain tumor, the leading cause of death from childhood cancer. More than 3,000 new cases are detected each year. “A tumor’s effects on a child’s physical and cognitive abilities can be devastating,” Elbabaa says. Even low-grade tumors like Hailey’s can wreak havoc if removed improperly. Left untreated, they can destroy healthy brain tissue as they grow. “Pediatric brain tumors can be difficult to treat,” he adds. “We try to avoid chemotherapy and radiation whenever possible, to avoid damaging the child’s still-developing brain.”
Hailey stayed in the hospital 10 days, followed by a week of physical therapy. Just months after her surgery, the prognosis is good. “She’s back in school and doing great,” Reed says. “She has slight problems with balance and hand-eye coordination, but that should improve as her recovery progresses. We take her to Cardinal Glennon every three months to make sure everything’s OK. You should have seen Dr. Elbabaa’s smile when we brought her in for her last check up! He’s thrilled she’s doing so well.” Hailey is sometimes a little skittish around Elbabaa, because she’s afraid visiting the hospital means the tumor has grown back, Reed adds. “But her dad and I always say, ‘Don’t be shy, honey—that’s the doctor who saved your life!’”