Miracles: A happy kid beats a brain tumor.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
On July 21, 2004, then-8-year-old Ethan Halbach and his mother Marya visited the emergency room at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Ethan’s recurring headaches, which had been diagnosed as tension headaches, had gotten so bad that Ethan was feeling nauseated. When a CAT scan revealed a tumor a little smaller than a golf ball on his brain, the CHOMP staff immediately arranged a helicopter flight to UC San Francisco’s intensive care unit.
If he had been virtually anywhere else when his brain started to hemorrhage—in the chopper, in the UCSF elevator—Ethan wouldn’t be here today. But he and Marya were just arriving at the intensive care unit when, as Marya says, “Ethan’s brain began to push out of the back of his skull.”
“I have to say it was nothing short of miraculous that this event happened just before we got to the ICU,” says Marya.
“He was having a hard time breathing,” she remembers. “They had to hustle me out—it was my own ER nightmare. They had to drill a hole in his head to relieve the pressure.”
Marya then had the unenviable task of phoning her husband Larry, a professor at NPS, who was in DC on business, with the news.
With Ethan stabilized, his surgeons took five days to plan an exceedingly tricky tumor removal—according to Marya, Ethan’s neurosurgeon said “it was the most difficult place possible for a tumor.” The surgery itself lasted 10 hours. Weeks in the ICU and regular floors of the hospital followed.
And complications ensued. Bacterial meningitis—which carries a dark 25 percent fatality rate with it—found Ethan, and he fell critically ill all over again. And again, his survival became an uncertainty. But the third grader, his attendant family, and two strong antibiotics (streamed intravenously for two weeks) beat back the infection.
Yet as far as Ethan had come, he had just begun. The tumor, lodged near the top of the brain stem, had affected the part of his brain that controls muscle movement, fine motor skills and sleep. It was a struggle for him to stay awake for more than a few minutes; he could hardly lift his head. As he grew strong enough to stand briefly, the mission became to completely reteach his nerves and muscles how to operate.
When physical therapist Jil Johnson of CHOMP met Ethan, she says, “He wasn’t able to sit up straight and hold his posture without support.” But she noticed something else: “He required very little encouragement,” she recalls. “He was kind of a fearless guy.”
“He never gave up,” says Martha Barbero, the teacher who helped Ethan complete his third grade curriculum at home as he recovered. “There was no sign he gave that he was ever going through anything that anyone else hadn’t gone through.”
Ethan had another powerful weapon at his disposal. “He is really fun and very witty,” says Barbero. “I always looked forward to going over to his house.”
Jil Johnson says Ethan won fans at the physical therapy center, who wonder how Ethan’s doing. When asked, Ethan cocks his head slightly, weighing the question carefully. “Well,” he finally says with a nod, breaking into a wide grin.
There are indicators of just how much Ethan, now nearly 10, has overcome—a slight drag to his speech, a unique gait. But there are also constant reminders that he isn’t done constructing his miracle.
He stood in front of his classroom at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year, patiently explaining to his fourth-grade classmates why his left eye won’t open (cranial nerve damage), why he can’t play basketball as much (his reflexive coordination is still building), and why he has to wear sunglasses (his right eye is permanently dilated).
He recently completed a six-mile backpacking trip at Castle Rock State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his dad.
And at home, he wrestles on the family’s trampoline with
older brother Ben. “It’s great to see him stronger,” says
13-year-old Ben. “I can’t wait until he gets even