Seven-Year-Old Recovers from Brain Tumor at Pediatric Unit

“I’m fine mom!” 7-year-old Madeline yelled after awkwardly lurching away from the table. Her mother, Brenda Hill, a nurse anesthetist, was not convinced. With her daughter experiencing headaches for several weeks, accompanied by vomiting, Brenda Hill’s growing sense of unease exploded into dread when she noticed that Madeline seemed to have lost her sense of balance. Madeline’s parents rushed her to the hospital and made sure she got an MRI. The test result warranted immediate surgery for Madeline.

In the operating room, surgeons removed a tumor the size of an orange, called a pilocytic astrocytoma, from the back of Madeline’s brain. Although benign, the tumor obstructed some of the brain’s ventricles and displaced the brain stem to the bottom of her skull. Emergency surgery likely prevented further complications from the tumor and saved Madeline’s life.

The surgery took a great toll on Madeline, affecting her physical and cognitive skills. Upon arriving at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital Pediatric Unit in Bethlehem, she was unable to move, open her eyes or speak. She communicated only by squeezing her right hand to indicate “yes.” Her age and shy nature made communicating with Madeline especially challenging at first, but staff members helped her overcome these challenges.  When she left Good Shepherd several weeks later, she was walking, playing and speaking.

To encourage Madeline’s participation, the staff utilized fun, interactive games, such as those available on electronic devices, in their treatment plan. Near the end of her time in the pediatric unit, staff arranged “outings,” such as a visit to a bowling alley. These trips provided an opportunity for the therapists to test Madeline’s ability to handle “real-world” scenarios, allowing them to evaluate her progress, identify areas for improvement and help her begin the transition home with confidence.

Cases like Madeline’s require the concerted effort from a team of professionals, including physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians, pediatricians, rehabilitation nurses, physical, occupational, speech and therapeutic recreational therapists, pediatric neuropsychologists and other medical professionals.

The role of a pediatric neuropsychologist is paramount, because neuropsychologists provide comprehensive evaluations of a patient’s neurocognitive strengths and weaknesses and help guide the treatment team in developing an individualized educational plan. “We target a variety of skills while at the same time building a rapport with the patient,” says Dr. Elona Suli-Moci, Ph.D., pediatric neuropsychologist. “We include the parents in the treatment program every step of the way.”

“We could not have been happier with the treatment Madeline received at Good Shepherd,” says Brenda. “We were almost afraid to leave because Madeline was doing so well.” Brenda’s fears soon turned to optimism as Madeline continued to improve at home – and she now shows few traces of her experience.