Defying All Expectations
Following an unremarkable fall in P.E., Natalee’s eyes started darting back and forth rapidly. A frantic trip to a local emergency room was followed by the terrible news — she had a brain tumor. The emergency physician sent Natalee to Phoenix Children’s.
On December 22, 2003, a CT scan at Phoenix Children’s revealed multiple advanced brain tumors which were malignant. Unbelievably, their active, outgoing girl had brain cancer.
Two days later, on Christmas Eve, our neurosurgeon brought in hand-selected surgical assistants and a second neurosurgeon to perform an emergency surgery.
As Natalee was wheeled down the hall, her mom was on one side, her dad on the other. To stay strong, they chanted together, “We’re from New York and we’re gonna kick butt.”
Surgery and the Long Road Ahead
The neurosurgeons at Barrow at Phoenix Children's were able to remove the largest of the tumors, located in the back of Natalee’s brain. It was along her cerebellum, which controls balance and fine motor skills. The tumor was so big, parts of it broke off, and crystallized deposits attached to her spine.
"Natalee needed excellent surgeons, oncologists, neurologists, endocrinologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, chemotherapy, radiation, audiology, speech, etc. She had to have all of it. This is a perfect example of what the Neuro-Oncology Program is all about — taking care of the whole patient," Allen Kaplan, MD, Medical Director of Neurology, said.
When Natalee was transferred to the oncology floor, the toughest work began. The second tumor was entwined around her optical nerves and inoperable, plus, there were still crystallized tumor deposits along her spine.
"The staff is extremely talented, gifted, very compassionate, and when they have to be, they’re very selfless," Mike, Natalee’s dad, said. The plan was to immediately begin six weeks of chemotherapy to soften the tumors, combined with radiation to shrink them. After that six additional months of chemotherapy were required. All this combined with post-surgery rehabilitation made this hospitalization more challenging than ever.
"If your kid is sick, this is where you want them — no ifs, ands, or buts," Cherie, Natalee's mom, said.
Recovering Beyond All Expectations
After Natalee’s surgery and a six-week hospitalization, she required extensive, continuous care. She was readmitted multiple times for blood transfusions, went through six months of additional chemotherapy, and required many rehabilitation sessions to help her relearn daily activities.
"She is a trooper. I’m very impressed with her ability to rebound and to have courage to keep doing things," Dr. Kaplan said. Natalee wasn’t expected to walk again. But she went from a wheelchair, to a walker, to defying all expectations by actually walking on her own.
"Natalee has done remarkably well. She is quick witted and determined," said Michael Etzl, MD, Neuro-Oncologist.
Once a year, Natalee visits Michael Lavoie, PhD. He makes sure her cognitive and emotional development is progressing properly. He’s even acted as a facilitator within the school system to get Natalee any extra services she needs.
Fast-forward to present day, Natalee is doing extremely well. She is excited to enter the seventh grade and was elected to the be the Student Council President!
Natalee formed an organization called “Natalee’s Angels,” to advocate stronger punishment for animal abuse, inspired by her experience with a therapy dog in the Hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. She hopes to plan a fundraiser next year for the therapy dogs at Phoenix Children's.
This summer, 12-year-old Natalee will be hanging out with her friends, catching the latest movies, going to the mall, continuing her physical therapy, and attending Camp Sunrise and Camp Rainbow (for children who have had cancer.)
Maybe one day, after she graduates from college and becomes a famous writer, she’ll look back on her experiences at Phoenix Children’s and include them in her autobiography.