Beating brain cancer and giving back: Brodie’s story

Brodie’s cancer survivor party was a chance to celebrate the completion of his cancer treatment by gathering his family and friends for an epic Nerf battle. Wanting to give back to other CHOC Children’s patients, the twelve-year-old boy turned his celebration into a fundraiser. Brodie used the proceeds to buy Legos, journals, games—all his favorite things while in treatment—to brighten the days of other children battling cancer.

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Brodie and his brother shopping for gifts to donate to CHOC patients.

“He wanted to buy more of the things that helped break up his time while he was at CHOC,” says mom Megan. “If you ask Brodie what he wants to be when he grows up, he says ‘I just want to make people happy.’”

Brodie’s journey to a diagnosis

Brodie’s path from initial symptoms to a diagnosis was long. While practicing karate at home, his dad Marcus noticed that his left side didn’t have any “oomph.” Over the next few days, he and Megan realized Brodie was losing coordination in his left hand and left foot.

The first few doctors who saw Brodie ruled out a tumor but couldn’t identify what was causing his loss of coordination. An MRI revealed something on Brodie’s basal ganglia—a collection of nerve cells deep within the brain that help control movement. They were eventually told that Brodie had likely suffered a stroke. Later, another specialist thought it might be iron accumulation on the brain.

“Something looked wrong, but nobody could tell us exactly what it was,” said Marcus.

The family spent 18 months crisscrossing the country, seeking out various pediatric specialists on their quest for answers.

During this time, Brodie had another issue—every five months or so, he would go blind in his left eye for a few days. There was no discernible reason for this loss of vision.

Their quest eventually led them to Dr. Raymond Wang, a pediatric metabolic disorder specialist at CHOC Children’s. He was able to rule out a genetic reason for Brodie’s symptoms, and encouraged the family to seek out the care of the CHOC neurology team. The next time Brodie lost vision in his eye, the family headed for the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Children’s Hospital. Brodie underwent another MRI, but this time from a different angle due to his eye condition.

They found a tumor.

Another starting line

“The news that Brodie had a brain tumor was not the finish line of the 18-month journey we had been on,” Marcus says. “That was actually the beginning of yet another journey, this one at CHOC.”  

The family was introduced to Dr. Ashley Plant, a pediatric oncologist at CHOC Children’s.

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Dr. Ashley Plant, a pediatric oncologist at CHOC Children’s

“Not only was she professional and a top-quality doctor, but she was also very warm and empathetic in that first meeting,” Marcus says. “She even gave my wife a hug, which made a lasting positive impression.”

Dr. Plant explained that Brodie needed to undergo a biopsy to determine whether the tumor was cancerous or not. Dr. Joffrey Olaya, a pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC, performed the biopsy.

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Dr. Joffre Olaya, pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC Children’s

“I was scared to death when he went in for the biopsy. But I knew we were in very good hands with Dr. Plant and Dr. Olaya,” Marcus says.

The biopsy confirmed the mass in Brodie’s brain was a cancerous tumor known as a germinoma. Germ cells are the reproductive cells in an unborn baby. Germ cells that grow in an unusual way can become a tumor. Often, those tumors form in the ovaries or testes. Sometimes during an embryo’s development, these cells can migrate to the brain and result in intracranial (within the skull) germ cell tumors.

A doctor unlike the rest

Throughout their lengthy journey to find a diagnosis, Megan and Marcus had met many different specialists. They consider Dr. Plant a guide on their son’s treatment journey.

“We were, and continue to be, super impressed with Dr. Plant because not all doctors are like her, and we’ve seen a lot of doctors,” Marcus says. “That doesn’t mean they’re not good, but they don’t all have the same bedside manner as she does.”

Throughout the course of Brodie’s treatment, Megan and Marcus had a lot of decisions to make. In those difficult moments, Dr. Plant was right beside them.

“She provided us with all the information we needed to make responsible decisions, but didn’t make decisions for us,” Marcus recalls. “She helped us make the ultimate decisions as his parents.”

Brodie’s treatment plan included six months of chemotherapy at CHOC, followed by seven weeks of proton radiation in San Diego.

Post-treatment, Brodie has returned to CHOC every few months for an MRI of his brain and a check-up with Dr. Olaya.

“We were so grateful to have Dr. Olaya in our corner because he’s always on the ball. He’s very sharp and conscientious, but also very caring,” Megan says. “It might tell you something that when Dr. Olaya comes in the room, Brodie jumps up and gives him a bear hug.”

Finding a familiar face at CHOC

While Brodie was admitted to CHOC Children’s Hospital for chemotherapy, he was visited by a child life specialist from The Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department, a group who strives to normalize the hospital environment for children and their families.

Child life specialists can engage patients in medical play to help them understand procedures and make tests less scary, bring their favorite toys and movies to their rooms, and show them amenities around the hospital like Turtle Talk and Seacrest Studios.

Shayli, the first child life specialist to visit Brodie’s room, turned out to be an old family friend.

“She looked familiar, but as soon as she said her name, a lightbulb went off—we knew her!” Marcus said. “Megan and I have been friends with Shayli’s parents for years, and they’re great people. But we hadn’t seen Shayli since she was a baby—and now here she is, taking care of our son.”

Shayli knew that Brodie loved Star Wars, so whenever characters would make special visits to the hospital, she made sure they didn’t leave before making a special stop in Brodie’s room.

Although Brodie spent a lot of time in his room resting during chemotherapy treatments, he made many visits to the child life playroom as well.

“For a while, it felt like we lived at CHOC, and it was great to have the ability to take Brodie to the play room for air hockey, or watch a movie or play a video game,” Marcus recalls. “There’s nothing you wouldn’t do to take your child’s mind off chemotherapy treatment.”

Brodie today

Despite countless doctor’s appointments and treatments over the last few years, Brodie has no fear of hospitals.

“He’s never met a stranger. Everyone he meets becomes an instant friend,” Megan says. “Brodie gets so excited to see Dr. Plant and the rest of his team. If I tell him that he has an MRI coming up, he’ll say, ‘Sweet!’”

With cancer behind him, Brodie is feeling more like himself. He loves Lego sets, playing X-box with his younger brother Finn, and swimming.

Learn more about the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC Children's

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CHOC recognized as one of nation’s best children’s hospitals

CHOC Children’s is one of only 50 pediatric facilities in the nation to earn recognition as a best children’s hospital by U.S. News & World Report. The following CHOC specialties are honored in the 2019-20 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings: diabetes/endocrinology, cancer, neonatology, neurology/neurosurgery, pulmonology and urology. Cancer ranked in the “top 20.”

“The national recognition for CHOC’s cancer program is well-deserved. There’s nowhere else I’d rather have gone through treatment than CHOC,” says 17-year-old Sydney Sigafus, CHOC patient and cancer survivor. “Everyone who works at CHOC cares about you as a person, not just a patient. I was included in every decision and conversation about my care.”

The Best Children’s Hospitals rankings were introduced by U.S. News in 2007 to help families of children with rare or life-threatening diseases find the best medical care available. Only the nation’s top 50 pediatric facilities are distinguished in 10 pediatric specialties, based on survival rates, nurse staffing, procedure and patient volumes, reputation and additional outcomes data. The availability of clinical resources, infection rates and compliance with best practices are also factored into the rankings.

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“We understand how scary it can be for parents whose children are dealing with life-threatening illnesses or injuries. That’s why we are committed to the highest standards of care, safety and service,” says Dr. James Cappon, CHOC’s chief quality officer. “While we are proud of our accolades, including being named a best children’s hospital, we remain focused on preserving the magic of childhood for all kids, whether they are seriously ill or healthy, or somewhere in between.”

Learn more about the Best Children’s Hospitals rankings.

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Six-year-old Beats the Odds Thanks to Life-Saving Brain Surgery at CHOC

At just 6 years old, Madison Morrison has earned the nickname “Miracle Maddy” after recovering from life-saving surgery at CHOC Children’s. The spunky girl, who loves listening to music and drawing, defied the odds of survival when the flu caused encephalitis (viral meningitis with life-threatening brain swelling). Within 48 hours of being taken to the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Children’s Hospital, Maddy underwent emergency brain surgery and was placed in a medically induced coma. For the next two months, her parents remained by her bedside in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).

Mike, Maddy’s dad, says February 4 marked the beginning of their journey. He and his wife Angel never imagined a trip to the emergency department for vomiting would end with their youngest child fighting for her life. On the evening of her admission, Maddy’s nurse immediately noticed when her patient became unresponsive and her pupils became fixed and dilated – grave findings suggestive of dangerous brain swelling. Maddy was intubated, placed in a coma and underwent surgery to have a device placed in her brain to measure and help reduce the pressure inside her skull. Given the fixed volume of the skull, there is little room to accommodate for brain swelling. As it does, the pressure in the skull increases. Seizures, strokes and even death can occur if the pressure rises significantly.

The pressure inside Maddy’s skull remained very high. Her physicians feared she would not survive. After all medical interventions failed to control the brain swelling and lower the pressure in her skull, and after a scan revealed Maddy was at imminent risk of death, CHOC neurosurgeon Dr. William Loudon presented Mike and Angel with one final measure:  a  decompressive craniectomy, a surgery in which part of the skull is removed to allow a swelling brain to expand beyond the normal confines of the closed skull.

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Miracle Maddy and her pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. William Loudon

“Dr. Loudon patiently explained everything, including the risks, and assured us he’d care for Maddy as though she was his own daughter,” recalls Mike. “We were naturally frightened, but we had confidence in him and trusted he would do everything in his control to save her.”

Mike adds, “He kept his word. We will forever be grateful to him.”

Maddy remained in a coma as she continued to heal. Her PICU care team became, in her parents’ words, “the protectors.”

“Without ever hearing her voice or experiencing her outgoing personality, the team stood by Maddy’s side to not only protect her and save her life, but to love her. The people in CHOC’s PICU are special. There’s no way to understand the emotion and bonds created in that unit unless you’ve been there and experienced the passion within the entire team and the love they have for their jobs, their patients and their parents,” shares Mike.

The PICU team rallied with Mike and Angel when Maddy came out of the coma. She still had a tough recovery ahead, but with the help of CHOC’s speech, physical and occupational therapists, she relearned to walk, talk and eat.

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Miracle Maddy recovering after brain surgery at CHOC.

The day Maddy was discharged from the PICU was bittersweet. Her parents were thrilled to be taking her home but sad to say goodbye to the staff who had become part of their family.

Angel explains, “Not only did the people in the PICU save Madison’s life, they were smiling faces to us day in and day out. They were a big part of our encouragement, while sharing in our hope and our worry. I was grateful to leave the PICU but sad to leave so many amazing people.”

Shortly after arriving home, Maddy was living up to her nickname. Walking laps around her home, dancing to her favorite songs and enjoying some Snapchat fun, she was putting her hospital stay behind her and focusing on the joys of childhood. And her CHOC family wouldn’t want it any other way for their “Miracle Maddy.”

Learn more about neurosurgery at CHOC

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Microcephaly and Encephalocele: Michelle’s Story

By Allyson Duran, mother of CHOC patient Michelle

When I was 21 weeks pregnant with our little girl, my fiancé and I received devastating news. Michelle’s head was not measuring large enough for how far along I was in my pregnancy. We were scared and didn’t know what this would mean for our little girl. My OB-GYN referred us to a high-risk maternal-fetal specialist, where we received a shocking diagnosis: our baby had microcephaly, a rare condition where a child’s brain does not fully develop, resulting in an abnormally small head size. They also diagnosed her with another condition called encephalocele, where brain tissue protrudes out to the skin from an abnormal opening in the skull. Although very rare – only 340 babies in the U.S. are born with this each year- this is one of the most common neural tube defects, a birth defect involving incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord.

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During the rest of my pregnancy it was a little emotional because we didn’t know if Michelle would survive the pregnancy or even worse, pass away shortly after birth. We didn’t know if she would come out breathing or what to expect. I had ultrasounds every week to monitor the growth of the encephalocele. When I was six months pregnant, my high-risk OB-GYN sent me to meet with Dr. Michael Muhonen, a pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC. I didn’t know what to expect, but I couldn’t handle any more bad news. He told me the mass growing outside of her brain could either be tissue or fluid, but they wouldn’t be able to tell for sure until after she was born.

He told us that the prenatal ultrasounds showed a giant encephalocele with severe concerning brain anomalies. I was terrified about what was going to happen to my baby, but I felt reassured that she would be in good hands.

Michelle was born October 10, 2016 at 10:34 a.m. at University of California, Irvine. She thankfully came out breathing on her own, and my fiancé and I were an emotional wreck. I couldn’t hold her or kiss her right away because she was whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Four long hours later, I was finally able to see her and give her a kiss, but I couldn’t hold her yet.

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Dr. Muhonen came to UCI to see Michelle and review her MRI so they could get a better idea of what was inside her encephalocele. While we waited for the results in the NICU, Michelle stopped breathing right in front of our eyes. The NICU nurses rushed to her aide and resuscitated her. She started breathing again on her own, but I can’t begin to describe how scary those two minutes were. My heart broke and fell into my stomach. At two days old, her condition was declining, but I knew in my heart that she was going to be ok.

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After that, a nurse approached us and handed us a little sack and said, “Someone who heard about your situation wanted to give this to you and remain anonymous.” As we opened the little sack we pulled out a key that said HOPE on it. I broke down in happy tears.

Michelle’s MRI results came back literally seconds later. Dr. Muhonen said that he had never seen an encephalocele this big before, but that it was mostly made up of brain fluid, and he was confident that he could successfully operate on her. Later that day, Michelle was transferred via ambulance to CHOC, where she would be prepped for surgery.

The next day, we put our three-day-old baby in the hands of Dr. Muhonen and prayed that her surgery would go well. Three hours later, he came out of the operating room to where we had been anxiously waiting in the lobby, and told us that the surgery went well.

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“We were able to successfully put the exposed brain back into the skull and remove the outer sac of the encephalocele. The post-operative results were superb, and Michelle had no difficulties with the complicated surgery,” Dr. Muhonen told us.

Michelle stayed at CHOC in the NICU for three weeks to recover and get strong enough to finally go home. During that time, my fiancé and I stayed just down the street at Ronald McDonald House. When our baby was hospitalized, we were grateful to have an incredible team of nurses caring for her. This was my first baby and I had never been through anything like this before, and Michelle’s nurses were very patient with me and explained everything. They taught me things like how to feed her. They spent so much time with her and knew tiny little nuances about her. They were there to help and support not only their patient, but her parents as well.

Our favorite nurse, Maria, told me that one of her favorite parts of being a NICU nurse is empowering parents so that they can eventually play the role of their baby’s biggest advocate.

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Michelle’s favorite nurse, Maria, feeding her a bottle in the NICU.

For a while, we had weekly appointments with Dr. Muhonen to monitor the shunt (a device that relieves pressure on the brain) he implanted a few months after surgery. Michelle was doing so well that our appointments were changed to once every three months!

Dr. Muhonen told us, “While Michelle is still growing, and has challenges ahead, I am optimistic that she will love and enjoy life, bring joy to her family, and will always be an inspiration to others.”

Today, Michelle is a happy baby. We are busy with physical therapy, occupational therapy, and infant stimulation appointments, but Michelle laughs and smiles all the time. She loves when people pretend to sneeze. She loves to jump. She is trying to walk, but she doesn’t like to crawl.

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Earlier this year, we participated in CHOC Walk in the Park in honor of our daughter, and to show our support for the wonderful neurosurgeon and all the other CHOC staff members who helped save her life! We are forever grateful and feel blessed for this wonderful hospital for keeping our family whole.

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Learn more about neurosurgery at CHOC

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My Journey from CHOC Patient to CHOC Volunteer

Written by Daniel Boucher, cancer survivor and current CHOC volunteer

My name is Daniel, and ever since I can remember, I have always wanted to play football for the University of Notre Dame. I had many motivations: my dad went there, they put academics before football, and I consider it almost a holy place, where people
“surrender to excellence” in their personal life, academics and community. And I had an athletic build too. At 10 years old, I was already 5 feet 2 inches and well on my way to achieving, if not surpassing, my dad’s height of 6 feet 3 inches. I had a competitive, determined drive in any situation. I was only satisfied if I gave my all.

I was ten years old when everything changed. It was a November afternoon and I was doing what I loved most― playing football. Trying to tackle my little brother, I followed the advice so often quoted in sports: keep your eye on the ball. As a consequence, I ran into a tree face first. I came home and threw up once or twice, but otherwise seemed unharmed. I didn’t really lose consciousness, but my dad took me to the emergency room just to be safe. That visit changed my life. It was a slow day, and there was an available CAT scan machine. Figuring that it would be no harm, the doctor ordered a scan. That scan revealed a cancerous mass sitting on the edge of my spinal cord.

Within hours, I was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a type of cancer that often spreads to other parts of the brain and spinal cord. I met my pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. William Loudon, and was scheduled for brain surgery. I remember watching “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” before surgery and telling my younger brother (whether out of innocence or the sheer confidence and determination I applied to every situation) that I’d be home in a week. If my parents heard me say this, they never tried to tell me otherwise. My dad later confided in me that this was one time where he truly thought I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t fulfill my promise to my brother- after surgery the doctors kept me unconscious for two days, giving my brain the best chance to recover from the surgery, and stayed in the hospital for two weeks before I got to go home. It felt so good to be in my own bed again that I slept for 21 hours straight.

My immune system was weak, and when I came down with a fever I had to go back to the hospital. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a symptom of pressure buildup in my spine. I remember that the hospital was getting in the Christmas spirit at that time. There was holiday music playing and I even got to attend a party while I was admitted, but I got to go home in time for Christmas. After the holidays, I started on my cancer’s treatment regimen under the careful eye of my oncologist, Dr. Lilibeth Torno.

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For the entire month of January, Monday through Friday, I would go to the CHOC Outpatient Infusion Center (OPI) cancer center from 8 a.m. – 12 p.m. There, I received chemotherapy treatments delivered intravenously through my portacath, which connected to an artery on my chest and made access to a blood vessel less painful and more practical than a needle in my arm. I usually slept for the first hour of my infusion. Later in the session, my mom would feed me ramen and read me “The BFG” by Ronal Dahl. Eventually my appetite increased so that I went back to eating my favorite food of corn dogs, and socializing to the point of befriending many of the nurses and asking if they had any ketchup. You can’t eat a corndog without ketchup. The nurses were so kind and hated to see me uncomfortable and they would bend over backward to help. A tall nurse named Ron took especially great care of me, and once I had asked for it, would bring me ketchup every day.

After chemotherapy, my mom and I would walk the CHOC hallways to the radiology department. My radiation treatment was twofold, one dose to the tumor site and one dose to the general brain. When I laid on the table to receive radiation, a special mask molded to my face and tattooed pinpoints on my back helped me line up in the exact right spot. Technicians would line me up and then I would lie for what seemed like hours (it was never that long) until they returned to help me up and send me home.

After I completed this first part of my strict but successful treatment plan, I came into the hospital for one weekend every three weeks. John was my favorite nurse and used to play practical jokes on me to cheer me up. I had a tricky vein but he could always get my IV inserted without hurting me. My dad came with me on these trips, and if I was feeling well enough, I got to visit the play room and receive visitors. My siblings would often come and we loved to play on the X-men arcade console. The machine had been modified to work without quarters, and we fully exploited this.

That June, I finished my last chemo treatment. It was a momentous occasion and my family hosted a party to celebrate. There was a bounce house, a slip and slide, and all my favorite foods. We even made a giant finish line banner across our driveway and t-shirts for the family. My favorite part, however, was visiting with my friends and family who had so generously helped with the behind-the-scenes work. Those who watched my younger siblings while mom was with me in the hospital, who made dinners, and especially who prayed unceasingly for my recovery and for my family.

Was I the same person who had hit that tree almost a year prior? No. Did I still have that physical strength to rush up and down a football field tackling other players? No. But the same attributes I’d always had within me in sports had been used to help me through my struggles. I had developed a different kind of toughness, one that is much more important. I may not have been able to run and throw a football down the field, but with my strong active spirit, I would look for new, less physical, adventures.

Recently I was invited to speak at a fundraiser to benefit neurosurgery at CHOC, so that Dr. Loudon and his colleagues can continue helping more kids the way they helped me when I was a patient. The event was a success, but the best part was getting to hang out with Dr. Loudon.

These days, I’m back at CHOC― this time as a volunteer. I get to entertain kids in the same waiting rooms I used to visit as a patient. I read books, play games, do puppet show, and just be their buddy when they need entertainment or a distraction. I also get to host Turtle Talk, an interactive show in the Disneyland Resort lobby of the Bill Holmes Tower, where patients and siblings can interact and have live conversations with Crush, the animated sea turtle from “Finding Nemo.” Sometimes I even run into Dr. Loudon and Dr. Torno. I really appreciated the efforts of CHOC to make me motivated and happy, (not to mention the medical care to recover from my disease), and am now proud to help make your stay as good as mine.

Learn more about neurosurgery at CHOC

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