It all started with a headache.
It was Father’s Day weekend, and 4-year-old Maelle complained that her head hurt. Her parents, Matt and Kristen, figured it was nothing serious. A few weeks later, they noticed Maelle’s eyes were crossing, impacting her vision, and the headaches were getting worse. They decided to take their daughter to the eye doctor, who discovered that Maelle had a swollen optic nerve – a sign of something potentially serious.
“He told us to take her to the hospital immediately to get an MRI,” recalled Matt. Feeling anxious, the family took Maelle to the emergency room near their hometown of Greeley, where she underwent test after test until late into the night.
Hours later, Kristen and Matt received news that no parent ever wants to hear. Maelle had a 3 centimeter mass in her head. Maelle was immediately transferred to Children’s Hospital Colorado by ambulance and admitted into the pediatric intensive care unit.
“As trying as that time was, every doctor and nurse was truly fantastic,” said Matt. “They answered every question. They made that terrible time so much easier.”
Doctors discovered that Maelle’s tumor was located on her optic nerve. Maelle soon underwent surgery to biopsy the tumor to determine whether it was cancerous. Her care team also placed a shunt in Maelle’s brain to help drain the fluid build-up resulting from the mass.
“That was the worst part,” said Kristen. “She was in surgery for six hours and she was in so much pain afterwards.”
The first night after the surgery was brutal. But a few days later, the family got the first piece of good news in quite some time. The biopsy revealed that Maelle’s tumor was not cancerous.
A year of chemo
Even though the tumor was benign, Maelle still had to undergo treatment to shrink the mass so it wouldn’t cause headaches and affect her vision. Surgery wasn’t an option, due to the precarious location of the tumor. Instead, their neuro-oncologist, Dr. Nick Foreman, recommended chemotherapy.
“He has been our guiding light throughout this whole ordeal,” said Kristen of Dr. Foreman.
Six weeks after her first headache, Maelle began weekly chemotherapy. The plan was to continue chemo for a full year – three weeks on, one week off – with quarterly MRI scans to monitor the mass.
As for Maelle, she kept her spirits high throughout her ordeal, often putting on silly shows for her care team and making up funny nicknames for her favorite nurses.
“She was almost always happy,” said Kristen. “Her smile and positive attitude got us through it.”
Maelle experienced several complications during treatment. Her brain shunt had to be replaced after her initial surgery wound didn’t heal properly, and she required another surgery to prevent the shunt from becoming exposed again. She also experienced an allergic reaction to the chemotherapy.
A birthday gift
The day of Maelle’s 5th birthday, the family got an unexpected call from Dr. Foreman. He had just reviewed the scans of Maelle’s most recent MRI. The tumor had shrunk enough that Maelle could stop chemotherapy three months earlier than planned. It was the best birthday present the family could have asked for.
One year later, Maelle is thriving. Described by her parents as a spunky, joyful little girl, Maelle started Kindergarten last fall and is working to regain her 20/20 vision. She still has to have quarterly MRIs to ensure the tumor isn’t growing, but so far it has remained the same size.
“Words can’t describe what Children’s Hospital Colorado means to us,” said Kristen. “A hospital isn’t a place where most people would choose to be. And yet, I always felt at ease there, knowing that our daughter was getting the best care available. They were nothing short of amazing.”