Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Prayers for Isabella

We know that there are many people out there praying for Isabella's quick and complete recovery and our family greatly appreciates it. Our parish, St. Thomas the Apostle here in Norwalk, CT is having a couple services to pray for Isabella.

The first is a mass for Isabella on Saturday, January 3 at 5:15 PM.

The second is a prayer group that will recite the rosary for Isabella on Wednesday, January 7 at 6:30 PM.

If you are in the area and have the time, feel free to stop by. They are located at 203 East Ave., Norwalk, CT 06855.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Quick Monday Update

Isabella is still doing ok and her spirits are still up. Her platelet and hemoglobin counts came back normal, but her neutrophils (white cells) are still very low, so she is still susceptible to infections. In addition, she will need to receive antibiotics for 14 days to treat the infected port, so she will be staying on the Pediatric floor for a couple more weeks. Her next round of chemo will start just as the antibiotics will finish. This will further delay her rehab, but we are hoping that they will be able do some light rehab in her room. Finally, one of the side effects of the chemo is that Isabella is finding it difficult to swallow, so she has been eating and drinking very little. When she gets hungry, they do give her some pain medication so that she can eat.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Isabella Doing Much Better

Well after a few hours of worry for us, Isabella has been doing much better today. After yesterday's events, which Julianne blogged, Isabella had been feeling pretty crummy and hadn't eaten or drank anything. She also had a really bad nose bleed early this morning, which left a pretty big clot that's blocking her left nostril. But today, I brought Annalise, Nathaniel, and Grandpa in to visit Isabella and she started feeling better and better as the day went on. I'm not sure if it was the visitors or the medicine kicking in, but Isabella started eating and drinking a little and even played more cards with everyone. Her temperature and blood pressure have also been good, so now we're just waiting on tomorrow's blood tests to make sure that she is recovering from this last dose of chemo.

Even more exciting is that she has slowly been opening her right hand more and more. Up till now, she has been able to move her right arm and hand, but not really able to open her fingers to be able to grasp anything. She would use her left hand to open her right hand. She started doing it at home on Christmas day once in a while, but today, she's been really working at it, opening and closing her hand 10 to 20 times in a row. Her thumb and pointer finger still need a little work, but she should be able to get them to work with some therapy and more time.

And yes, hopefully, we should have some of the Christmas pictures up soon. I'm just waiting to gather them from all the cameras that were present.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Unplanned Admission

Roneil wanted me to give my perspective on what happened today. Isabella had a wonderful Christmas yesterday - aside from her disabilities, she really ran around like a normal kid most of the day. This morninng she was tired (we got back late), but participated in her morning classes. (No, the therapists don't even get a long weekend.)

In the afternoon, the PA came over to access her port and give her the scheduled vincristine dose after drawing labs. Within minutes of the PA leaving, Isabella started crying even more inconsolably (she should have been calming down by that point), and complaining of a severe headache all over her head. Then she began shaking all over. It was so bad, I thought she was having a seizure at first, but she was able to follow directions. Then she started vomiting. We were trying to calm her down, but anywhere we tried to touch her seemed like it caused severe pain.

By the time the nurse came in and got the resident, who saw her and called the attending, she was still crying and shaking, but so exhausted that she was dosing off in between screaming spells. We couldn't believe this was an exagerated anxiety type of response to having her port accessed (both other times it was a terrible experience - done as an "emergency" without numbing), because of how severe her symptoms were. The part that bothered me was that even as she was falling asleep, she was still shaking. Finally her nurse came back in to do her vitals, and her temp was 103.7!

Her oncologist came over from clinic within a few minutes and sent us right up to the inpatient floor. Her bloodwork had come back, and everything had dropped severely from 2 days ago - she was neutropenic (neutrophils 400), and on the border of needing platelet and packed red cell transfusions. The doctor's theory makes sense - her port was infected, but not causing any symptoms until it was flushed and pushed the bacteria into her bloodstream. That's why she was completely fine before the infusion, and it hit her like a ton of bricks a few minutes later.

I could tell everyone was nervous, because the nurse at Rusk brought her up without waiting for transport, and the nurse on the floor "stole" the antibiotics from the pharmacy without waiting for Isabella's name to be admitted into the computer (there was some kind of computer problem). I got nervous when they re-accessed her port and she didn't put up the usual fight - she barely complained. She's now on 2 "big gun" antibiotics, pretty much covering any bacteria you could acquire in the hospital.

Isabella perked up within an hour or two and is back to herself again. She took a long nap, and then we spent the evening playing cards. We're waiting to see if she'll need the transfusions tomorrow. How long she stays on this floor is still up in the air.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Commitment to Fighting Childhood Cancer

Click the title to view an article that ran in today's New York Times about Dr. Jeffrey Allen. He's a neuro-oncologist and part of the team at NYU that is treating Isabella.

Julianne and I are utterly amazed with Dr. Allen and Dr. Sharon Gardner who is the other neuro-oncologist that we've been working with. This article basically confirms the hours that we expect they put in on a daily basis and wonder how they have a life outside of the hospital. In any case, we're grateful that there are people like them who are committed to treating and curing children like Isabella.

Back at the Hospital

We had a great Christmas day at home and have plenty of photos and video from the day that we will post later. Last night, we brought Isabella back to Rusk. Today, Isabella got her last dose of Vincristine, which now officially ends her first cycle of chemo. During the push through her port, Isabella developed a bacterial infection and immediately spiked a fever. She was just admitted to the Pediatric Unit where they are giving her antibiotics while they check her blood cultures to see exactly what could be in there. Right now, Julianne is with her and Isabella is feeling better.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

On behalf of the rest of our family, I would like to wish everyone a very, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The last few weeks have been extremely challenging, and we have many more weeks ahead. I am positive we wouldn't be able to get through this without the tremendous support from our family, friends and community. It is amazing and truly humbling how some people who we hardly know display such compassion and selflessness.

Just like Thanksgiving, this Christmas will be different from the ones we've had before, but not as different. I will be taking Isabella back home in the morning and all the kids will be able to open their gifts as usual. And later that night, we'll take Isabella back to Rusk to continue her rehab. But once again, we are all praying for a miracle and that a year from now, we will be celebrating with a cured Isabella.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Home for Christmas Eve

The doctors have OK'd Isabella to come home tonight for Christmas Eve! She has completed her full day of therapy and we will be on our way home shortly. This will allow her to be part of our traditional Slovak Christmas Eve dinner.

Unfortunately, she is not allowed to stay overnight, so I will be driving her back to the hospital later tonight. Then, we will get up bright and early and go back home for Christmas day!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Isabella's Blood Count Improving

They did a routine blood count on Isabella today to check her white cell count. Her white cell count had been drastically lower since the chemotherapy, which makes her susceptible to infections. She has been receiving medication known as Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF or GCSF), which assists the body in regenerating her white blood cells. The doctors expected Isabella to have a low count until at least the end of this week.

Even before the doctors began the GCSF on Saturday, they had noticed that Isabella's white counts were starting to improve! Today, the measurement showed that Isabella is no longer neutropenic - she is still below normal, but her body seems to be recovering very well from the chemotherapy. She still has a little nausea, but overall, she's doing great. Her walking continues to improve, but her right hand will require more time.

She just has one more day of rehab on Wednesday (Christmas Eve), then she comes home for Christmas!

Isabella's Best Friend

Here is Isabella goofing around with her best friend, Imani, here at Rusk. They are wearing sunglasses that they received in one of the many goodie bags from contributions. Isabella loves playing with Imani, who is one of her roommates. When Isabella was in the pediatric unit for a couple days, Imani would ask us everyday if Isabella was coming back. And when Isabella did eventually come back, she was happiest to see Imani out of anyone and they immediately began playing with their toys.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Back at Rusk After a Great Day

Isabella is now back at Rusk after a nice, relaxing day at home. This was her first time home and out of the hospital in over a month. All the kids were excited to finally be home together. When we got home, we had a little lunch, the kids ran around, Isabella was getting a little too enthusiastic with her siblings so we had to calm them down a little. We played some video games (Rock Band) and listened to some Christmas music and danced around the living room. We took a nap, had some dinner, then played some more video games before coming back. It ended up being a typical Sunday at the Icatar household.

It was definitely nice to be home and feel a little sense of normalcy, even if it was just for a few hours. We'll have a couple days of rehab therapy as we wait for Christmas when we'll head home again.

We're Home!

We just got home from the hospital. Isabella couldn't stop smiling the whole ride home, she was so excited. When we got home, her brother and sister were also excited to see her. Nathaniel kept pointing to her and saying something (we think it was "Bella").

Coming Home!

Our string of bad luck continues as a noreaster is going through New
England trying to prevent us from taking Isabella home for the day,
but we're determined! I'm sitting outside the hospital now and
Julianne is bringing Isabella down and we'll be heading home. This
will be her first time being outside in over a month. Isabella will be
able to see the several inches of snow we got in the last few days,
our Christmas tree, Cleo our cat, and her fishes.

We'll be bringing her back early tonight, so we don't have much
planned for the day except a lot of sitting around and relaxing.
She'll be coming home again in a few days for Christmas. We should
have some pics posted later.

Friday, December 19, 2008

First Cycle Complete!

We just finished giving Isabella her last dose of Temodar and she really didn't make it easy. She threw up the first batch that she got, and fortunately, the hospital pharmacy was able to make her a second batch. With lots of patience and water, we were finally able to give her the entire batch with small squirts from the syringe (approximately 0.25 to 0.5 cc's per squirt). We had started with the first batch at 9:20 PM and she took the last squirt at 11:00 PM.

Earlier, they gave her the vincristine, and that went uneventfully as they just pushed it through the port in her chest. They also removed the access from the port, so she no longer has any tubes dangling from her. They'll have to re-access the port next week when she has another vincristine dose.

So round 1 is complete and we just hope that these drugs are doing what they have to be doing and that whatever is left of the tumor is reacting to the drugs.

We also just found out from the attending physician that they will allow Isabella to come home on a day pass on Sunday! We can't wait to have her home, even if it will just be for a day.

Things I Miss (Daddy Version)

I miss...

...coming home off the train and having the kids race over to see who could give me a hug first.

...going to Friendly's and "helping" the kids finish their desserts.

...sleeping in on Saturday mornings, only to wake up being crowded out of bed by all 3 kids (and the cat!).

...doing a triple-piggy-back with Annalise on my back, Isabella on Annalise's back, and Nathaniel on Isabella's back.

...finding Isabella sleeping in unique, precarious positions all over the house. My favorite is still when she fell asleep in bed with a book on her face!

...wrangling up the kids to go shopping at Costco or the mall. Of course, once we get to Costco, filling up on all the food samples.

...doing our "home-run handshake" whenever anyone on the Yankees hit a home run.

...going to Dave and Busters and spending $20 to win tickets on the arcade games. Annalise and Isabella would then spend 30 minutes trying to pick out a prize worth $0.50.

...being a good, ol' regular boring family...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Almost Done With This Cycle

Isabella had some problems taking the Temodar medication. This portion of the chemo is given orally, normally by capsule, but since Isabella can't swallow the capsule whole, they need to open it and dissolve it in water. Isabella had problems taking the medicine because it tasted so bad and she ended up gagging on it and vomiting it back up.

For the cycle, Isabella is supposed to take Temodar once a day for 5 days. She took it fine on Day 1 and 2 (Saturday and Sunday), but threw up Day 3 (Monday) and Day 4 (Tuesday). Since she basically missed the Day 3 and 4 doses, they decided to extend the cycle for two days to make up for it. Last night, Julianne discovered that if we put a couple drops of flavoring in the medicine and give Isabella a lollipop to suck on after taking the medicine, then Isabella is less likely to throw it up. It's been working fine so far since Isabella has been able to take Day 3 on Wednesday and Day 4 today and keep it down. She has one more day of Temodar on Friday and will be done with it until next month.

She also has two more doses of vincristine scheduled for this Friday and next Friday, but this is given intravenously so she shouldn't have any problems taking this. Just for completion's sake, the other medication that's part of the cycle is called carboplatin, and that is administered via IV drip over 4 hours on Day 1 and Day 2 of the cycle, so Isabella is done with that one for now.

Isabella has also been tranfered back to Rusk and just like before, immediately perked up and began playing with her friends again. She should begin her therapy sessions on Friday.

*** IMPORTANT ****

One of the side effects of the chemotherapy is that it reduces your white blood cell count which makes it harder for your body to fight off infections. Isabella's blood count has already dropped dramatically and she will soon begin receiving medication that will help her regenerate her white blood cells. So, not only does that mean that Isabella can't have visitors, but we also need to limit the visitors at our house to make sure that Julianne or myself do not get sick. So please call before dropping by and if you are sick or may even remotely be sick, please postpone your visit until you are sure you are not sick. They expect her blood count to be back to normal within a couple weeks.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Things I Miss

I read somewhere recently that after something so devastating as a cancer diagnosis, people learn to truly appreciate the small things in life. How true this is! Before Isabella’s hospitalization, I would have said, “Yeah, yeah . . .” But now I long for all those little moments.

I miss the constant commotion at home: the kids running after each other, dancing or singing with their shows, arguing over whose turn it was to play with Nathaniel, etc. Now there’s a different kind of commotion – extended family members coming and going trying to keep Annalise and Nathaniel taken care of and entertained, trying to keep everything at home in order, trying to plan who should do what for the next day.

I miss the “stressful” commute home from work: racing from the office to get Annalise and Isabella from the afterschool program just in the knick of time, throwing them in the car and racing down to Stamford to pick Nathaniel up at Lola’s house. We wouldn’t get home until 7PM, but one of my favorite times was sitting in traffic, singing the girls’ favorite songs with them over and over again. (Thank goodness for Sirius radio record and repeat!)

I miss the weekly trips to the library, desperately trying to find Annalise a new series of books to be interested in, while trying to keep an eye on Isabella in the beginning-reader book room, and running after Nathaniel as he grabs books off the shelves and makes a run for the stairs.

I miss our bedtime routine, including the girls’ last-ditch delay efforts requesting one last drink of water, one more back scratch, one more tuck in, and one more hug and kiss.

I miss sleeping in on Saturday mornings, only to wake up being crowded out of bed by all 3 kids (and the cat!).

All of those little things I used to complain about – I would give anything to have them back if that was all I had to worry about.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Not Such A Happy Monday

Isabella had a slight complication on Sunday and the doctors wanted to keep her another day in the Pediatric Unit. Isabella checked out fine medically this afternoon and we are trying to get back to Rusk as soon as we can. Hopefully, we can get back on Tuesday.

Isabella is also starting to feel a little nauseous from the medication. Her appetite is getting slightly affected and her digestion may also be starting to get affected. She also had the 3rd of 5 daily doses of Temodar. This is the only one given orally, instead of through her port, and unfortunately, she vomited both times they tried to give it to her, so they gave up and we will see how this affects this cycle of treatments. Hopefully, she will be able to take the medication tomorrow without vomiting.

Touching Moments

Isabella wrote a letter today:
“Dear family, when are you going to come and see me? I hope you come soon. (Heart, heart, heart) Isabella.”

The letter is really meant for her sister and brother. It was heartbreaking to read this, but it’s really difficult for Annalise and Nathaniel to visit more often. They were just here yesterday, but it’ll be another week before they are likely to visit again. Weekends seem like the only reasonable time to drag everyone in on the train and not feel guilty about getting home so late.

Tonight she asked when she was going to go home. I gave her the usual answer, “When your right arm and leg start working better.” Then I reminded her that we’re supposed to go back to rehab tomorrow morning. When she said, “That’s what I meant,” I realized that she’s now calling Rusk home.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

First Cycle of Chemo

Isabella sailed through her first cycle of chemo. She had a dose of vincristine IV push, then a carboplatin infusion over 4 hours both days. For 5 days she’ll also take an oral med, Temodar, that has to be on an empty stomach, can only be crushed and mixed with water, and reportedly tastes horrible. She complains and cries about the oral med, but does take it because I’ve told her how important it is in helping her get better. She’s scheduled to get another dose of vincristine on days 7 and 14 as an outpatient.

Her only complaint was a tummy ache at times. And she really didn’t eat very well on the second day. But at least there was no vomiting. The doctor said in about 2-3 weeks we’ll start to notice some hair falling out, and then it all comes out within a couple of days. I haven’t warned her about it yet – I’m not sure how she’s going to react. (She might not mind - no more crying about combing out the tangles every morning for a while! And I can pull out some really cute hats that I have collected through the years if she wants.)

She really is used to hospital stuff at this point. When the nursing assistants come in, she offers them her arm for a blood pressure check, and then holds her hair aside for them when they check her temp (they use a temporal artery gauge). Her port is no longer so sore, and she even lifts up her shirt to help the nurse check to see if it flushes correctly in a nice, matter-of-fact way. Wow, all of this from a kid who used to refuse to take Tylenol!

She seemed to do well with the inpatient stay this time, too. She spent most of the morning in the playroom. A group “Bryan’s Dream” donated gifts to the kids today and she got this gorgeous soft yellow and orange flowered blanket. She was so happy with it that she had it wrapped around herself most of the evening while we watched TV.

So far, so good

Julianne has a couple blogs to upload later, but I just wanted to give a quick update. Isabella received a couple rounds of chemo over the weekend. So far, we haven't seen any noticable side effects. She has a couple more medications to take for three days. We're hoping to get back to Rusk (the rehab building) on Monday so that she can continue with her physical therapy. More later....

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chemo Begins

Isabella just received the first dose of chemotherapy at 5:10 PM. One of the medications was a straight push through the port, and the other is a 4 hour drip that will finish shortly after 9 PM. Then at 8 or so, a third medication will be given orally. We will do the same thing tomorrow night, then hopefully, go back to rehab at Rusk on Monday.

Here's an inspirational scene from Lord of the Rings and hope that the remaining tumor cells are treated how the orcs are treated.

Back to the Pediatric Unit

We just got transferred back to the Pediatric Unit, so we will be starting soon. Julianne and I have no idea what to expect. How much nausea will Isabella have? If and when will her hair fall out? The nurse says that everyone reacts differently so we'll just have to wait and see. More in a bit.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Official Official Diagnosis

After further analysis by the neuro-pathologist at St. Jude, he came to the same conclusion as the NYU neuro-pathologist and they completely agree that it is a malignant glioma. We are not even going to bother waiting for the Johns Hopkins pathology results. Isabella is scheduled to begin chemotherapy immediately, tomorrow, Saturday, December 13.

Isabella also had another MRI today and it showed that her brain stem is shifting back to normal (remember that it had been shifted by the original tumor). More importantly, it showed that the remaining tumor cells left in the stem were not growing at any noticeable rate. This is probably one of the first pieces of "good" news we've received since they removed the tumor. If the remaining cells had been growing at a fast rate, it would be a much poorer prognosis.

We're a little disappointed because the rehab doctor said Isabella was doing so well, that he was going to let us take her home on a "day-pass" on Sunday. Since she'll be doing chemo on Saturday and Sunday, she won't be able to go home now. But we are mostly relieved that we definitely now know what we are dealing with and know how we are going to treat it. We will still have many anxious moments over the next several months as we see how the remaining tumor cells react to the chemotherapy.

Emotional Rollercoaster

I am like a human emotional rollercoaster. You should see me – over the last three weeks, my emotions have changed like the wind.

It is so overwhelming to see my child in distress. I was terrified when Isabella became unresponsive when we first got to NYU. I was relieved to see her wake up from surgery to remove the tumor and speak. (They told us there was a chance that she would not be able to speak.) I was devastated when we found out the tumor was malignant and had spread to an unresectable area in the brainstem. I now feel a little bit better that there is a chance for cure with the Head Start protocol. My emotions vary by the day, sometimes by the hour. Here is just a quick example of how my mood changes.

Maya Manley, the founder of the Making Headway Foundation and a frequent volunteer visitor, came to see me one day in Isabella’s rehab. I was in tears as I told her Isabella’s story. She suggested I talk to one of their therapists. I got a call a couple of days later from the therapist. At the time, Santa had just visited Isabella and given her that precious computer which cheered her up so much. Also, the oncologist had just told me a story of a Connecticut child who had a similar cancer who participated in the protocol and is still recurrence-free 4 years later. So when I spoke to the therapist, I told her I was doing pretty well and didn’t need any help.

Two days later, after sitting with Isabella for 48 hours, watching her lay in bed refusing to cooperate or interact with anyone, I was a mess again. Maya happened to stop by our room, and it was pretty obvious to her what a wreck I was. After going home, and having a break, I returned to see Isabella happily back in rehab. Of course, when the therapist came by to see me, I was doing fine and again told her I didn’t need any help. Maya and the therapist must think they’re each talking to two different people!

Julianne Will Be Blogging

I told Julianne it is very cathartic to write things down and is very helpful as one of the ways to deal with this tragic event. It really is inspiring and comforting to know how so many people follow the blog and are genuinely interested. Several people have told me that they follow the blog every day. I convinced Julianne to try her hand at writing and she will be contributing to the blog to provide her perspective on everything going on. Up till now, what you have read on the events is based on my interpretation. I think it will be very interesting for everyone to read another point of view.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Santa Visits the Hospital

While Isabella was in the Pediatric Unit, Santa Clause made a surprise early visit to the kids. This was one of the few times that Isabella perked up while there, and who wouldn't if they were being given all sorts of gifts? Isabella got a bunch of gifts, but her favorite is a toy laptop that she got (wow, just like daddy!). It plays games and music. The video below shows her dancing to her favorite song on the laptop.

Isabella Back to Rehab

Finally, Isabella was discharged from the Pediatric unit and back to the rehab center at the Rusk Institute. Since we are waiting on confirmation of the second and third opinions, we've decided to postpone the chemotherapy, so there was no reason for her to be in the Pediatric unit. Plus, she was missing precious rehab time that we could be using to strengthen her right side.

Isabella is so glad to be back at Rusk because she was reunited with all the friends that she has made so far. While in Pediatrics, Isabella was very grumpy and would rarely cooperate with anyone which was very frustrating for everyone. She had been there since Friday, when she had the operation to put the port in her chest. Since Friday, Isabella has refused to walk or pretty much do anything until last night, when she finally started to walk around with my assistance. But today, when she went back to Rusk and met up with her friends, she immediately perked up, began smiling, laughing, and dancing. Julianne and I were so relieved because we thought it would take her a few more days to adjust.

Her rehab regimen begins again on Thursday, and hopefully, they could make good progress before we start whatever treatment we decide on. By the way, the pathology report from St. Jude should be back by Thursday, which will either confirm whether the tumor is a glioma (original diagnosis by NYU), or an ependymoma (new diagnosis by St. Jude). Either way, we have sent the required material to Johns Hopkins for a third opinion, in case the first two opinions end up not matching.

Isabella's Song

The song that Shira Weinberger used for the Family Photo slideshow is called "Isabella" by the Terrible Twos. You can find it at Amazon by clicking the link and download it for $1.29 or 5 Pepsi points.

If you didn't hear the song when you first saw the slideshow, I suggest you go back and watch it again and make sure you have your speakers turned up. It's a perfect song to go along with the slideshow.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Frustrations Setting In

It has now been three weeks since we first discovered Isabella's brain tumor, and what started out as a whirlwind has slowed to a frustrating crawl.

First of all, Isabella has been moved three times in the last three weeks (with one more back to rehab later this week). We already know that she has adjustments issues every time she moves to a new place, but she seemed extra frustrated on this last move from Rehab back to the Pediatric floor after her operation to put the port in her chest. She really has not been making much progress with her right hand, and she hasn't tried to walk since the operation since she's been sore. Not to mention that she's lost a few days of rehab because of the operation.

Secondly, the back and forth from Connecticut to New York City is beginning to take its toll. Juliannne and I haven't been together at home for three weeks since one of us has been staying at the hospital every night. We've been eating a lot of New York pizza and cafeteria food. Our parents and in-laws have done a great job keeping things patched together at home, but we feel bad basically neglecting Annalise and Nathaniel.

Finally, it's extremely frustrating to still not be sure what this thing is in Isabella's head and not being able to do anything about it. The delays in getting the pathology results and the second/third opinions is really driving us nuts. But although we do wish we could start treatment, we do want to make sure that we are treating the right thing with the proper method. In a way, it could be a good thing that Isabella had the fever that delayed the chemo, because it allowed us to get the second opinion.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Official Diagnosis (...or not)

Last week, we received the official diagnosis for Isabella's brain cancer:

Glioneuronal neoplasm with anaplastic features (which is a type of anaplastic astrocytoma)

There is a clinical trial that specifically treats these malignant gliomas in young children, called Head Start (Phase 3). The protocol for this treatment calls for 4-5 cycles of chemotherapy (4 weeks apart), followed by a final week of extremely intensive chemotherapy. That final dose is so severe that Isabella will require a stem cell infusion to assist her recovery since her white blood cell count will end up being very low. If necessary, we will then use radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells. The purpose of this trial is to eliminate or reduce the requirement to use radiation since radiation has several long term side effects affecting intelligence, growth, and motor skills.

Once we received the diagnosis, we sent the MRI slides and pathology results to St. Jude's Children Research Hospital in Tennessee for a second opinion. Today, we received a frantic call from St. Jude's to ask if we've started chemo yet, and we told them no. It was supposed to start today, but was postponed another day because of Isabella's fever. Apparently, the pathologist from St. Jude came up with a different diagnosis:

Vascular ependymoma (most likely anaplastic)

They need to run some more tests to verify it, which will take a few more days. As such, we will be moving Isabella back to the Rehab center so they can continue with her therapy.

Neither diagnosis carries a prognosis that is necessarily better or worse than the other, but this new diagnosis is significant because an ependymoma does not react well to chemotherapy and is instead treated with radiation. Because of this, we will be holding off on chemotherapy for now until we get the final word from St. Jude.

Unfortunately, we will now have to go for a third opinion, most likely to Johns Hopkins. Since the neuro-pathologist at St. Jude is a nationally recognized pathologist, we expect the findings to match with St. Jude.

You may ask how two pathologists can come up with such varying diagnoses? Well although there are roughly 3400 new brain cancer incidents in children every year, the type that Isabella has is extremely rare with about 50 incidents per year. Because of this, not a lot of people have experience diagnosing it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Isabella Loves Her Sister

It's always a special occassion when Annalise comes to visit Isabella in the hospital. Isabella always perks up and has fun with Annalise. Here is a short video of Isabella and Annalise just goofing around while watching a video.

Chemo Postponed

We are waiting on a second opinion on the diagnosis from St. Jude's Childrens Research Hospital in Tennessee, which should be in on Monday. In addition, Isabella developed a fever overnight after the surgery, so we decided to postpone the chemotherapy until Monday. Isabella will remain on the Pediatric floor until the chemo is given, then she'll probably be transferred back to the Rusk Institute to continue her therapy. We're hoping for a nice, quiet weekend.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Out of Surgery

The operation to put the port in Isabella's chest was uneventful. Isabella is resting comfortably in the recovery area and we are now just waiting to be transferred to the Pediatric floor. During the surgery, we ran out and bought Isabella some chicken fingers and a hamburger, which she requested before she went under. I'm sure she's going to be starving.

To the OR

Yes, almost 3 hours later, they've finally taken Isabella to the OR. Julianne will be going into the OR with Isabella just until she goes to sleep. Then we will both wait in the recovery room until they're done, which could be an hour later.

This picture shows Julianne in an OR gown waiting with Isabella. Of course, Isabella stopped smiling just long enough for me to take the picture.

2PM Operation

Isabella is scheduled to be taken to surgery at 2PM. They will be placing a port in her chest that will be used to administer the chemotherapy. The whole thing shouldn't take more than an hour or so.

The poor thing went to bed early last night, around 8 PM. She isn't allowed to eat anything after midnight, and can only have clear liquids until 10 AM. She's in therapy now, but she's going to be miserable and starving up till the surgery. Here she is in therapy riding a special tricycle.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Big Weekend Coming Up (UPDATED with photos)

On Friday, Isabella will be going through an operation where they will implant a "port" in her chest. The port is placed right under the skin and is connected to one of her major arteries and is used to administer the medication during her chemotherapy. Since she will be getting treatments over the course of the next 6 months, this eliminates the need to constantly poke her arms with needles.

Then, during the weekend, she will receive her first round of chemotherapy. (Even as I type it, it still doesn't feel real, but this is as real as it gets.) Some of the side effects of the chemo is hair loss, nausea, and decreased white blood cells which makes it harder to fight off illnesses. Because of that, if you plan to visit Isabella within the next few months, we ask that you not be sick, and we will be passing the Purell around pretty generously. (We are hoping that she'll be home by Christmas.)

On a bright note, Isabella has started to walk on her own. She started standing with our support a couple of days ago, and would take a few steps if we supported her. But then just last night, we took a longer walk down the hall with her clutching my leg for support. Today at breakfast, we made the same walk, but this time, she just held my hand so she was supporting herself for the most part. Finally, tonight, she was so proud of herself that she started taking steps on her own, and would yell at us if we tried to touch her. Obviously, we're nearby to catch her if she falls since her legs are still weak, but we were really happy to see her walking. She still has to work on her right hand though. She can move her right arm, but her hand remains clenched. We're hoping that therapy will work with her more to make progress.

Finally, I apologize for the quality of the pictures. First off, they're taken with my phone camera. Secondly, since Isabella is so elusive towards the camera, I have to play ninja in order to get a picture of her.

Happy Wednesday

With Isabella busy in rehab for most of the day all week, I decided to ease my way back into work today and tomorrow. I stayed overnight in the hospital Tuesday night, got Isabella ready on Wednesday, and walked over to the office afterwards. It was probably the easiest commute I've had in years. The plan was to walk back to the hospital at lunch so I can have lunch with Isabella, then head back after work to spend some time before going home.

When I got to the hospital, I pleasantly found out that it was "Happy Wednesday", where all the kids on the floor get together in the dayroom and they are served a special lunch. It really is something to see the children get together and the appreciation they display. What's even more amazing are the volunteers that show up day in and day out to attend to the kids out of the goodness of their hearts. Last night, Isabella had a great time at a story telling session where some people brought in some books and read them to the kids. They even gave a bunch away. Tonight, some volunteers came in to build gingerbread houses and gingerbread men (or women) with the kids. Their efforts are not only inspiring and greatly appreciated, but extremely humbling.

I even got caught up in it myself during the Happy Wednesday lunch. Unfortunately, there were more children than volunteers, and some of the children are more needy than others. I tried to help out a little myself, by passing out some of the meals, helping a little girl cut her barbeque chicken, making sure someone had ketchup and just talking with the kids to hopefully let them forget for a few minutes where they were. When I finally walked back to the office, I thought to myself if anything I would ever do at work be as appreciated or as rewarding as assisting these children in need.

I would bet no.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Charitable Organizations

Many people have asked if they can give anything or do anything to help us out. At this point, there really isn't anything that we need and our family has been assisting us tremendously over the last couple weeks. We would ask that you not send any toys or stuffed animals as we already have a ton of them. The hospital also does not accept flowers or balloons in the children's rehab floor. We may need stuff for long term rehab or for when Isabella comes home, but we won't know that right away.

If you still feel that you would like to contribute something, we suggest you look at Making Headway.

This organization is not only researching cures for brain tumors, but they also provide a large support network for the victims and families, both during treatment and during recovery. They are partnered with the NYU Medical Center and its Stephen D. Hassenfeld Children's Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.

For more information regarding pediatric brain tumors, visit these sites:
Children's Brain Tumor Foundation
Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation

Monday, December 1, 2008

Back to Rehab

Isabella had her first full day of rehab today. Up till now, because of the holiday, she had only been getting partial rehab time, and we felt we lost a lot of time because of that. Isabella is still stubborn in using her right hand and in walking and is beginning to get dependent on her wheelchair. She constantly clutches her right hand and we need to get her to open it up and use it more so that she doesn't permanently lose functionality there. She is able to walk a few steps with some assistance, and we need to get her away from the wheelchair so that she can build up strength in her legs. Julianne has been working closely with her and the therapists to properly motivate her to cooperate.

We are trying to get as much therapy in as possible before her chemo treatment, because she'll be very weak afterwards, so the more progress we make now, the less we have to make later on.

Our Family Picture, Continued

You may have read about our family picture in the blog entry Our Family Picture. We were desperately trying to find a photographer who would be able to come to the hospital and take our picture before Isabella begins her chemotherapy this week. Julianne did a quick search of the area on the Internet and found Shira Weinberger. Julianne told her about our situation and Shira was immediately touched and offered to come down and do a photo shoot at no charge.

So on Sunday, we all got dressed up in our Christmas outfits and Shira, who happens to live just a few blocks from the hospital, came down and shot a whole bunch of pictures. And it wasn't easy! Isabella decided to be at her grumpiest, and frankly, I was just about to give up on the whole idea. But somehow after 20 minutes or so, Shira was able to get Isabella to relax so we can get some good pictures.

Shira has already posted a slideshow on her website at:

We can't thank Shira enough for her incredible generosity and patience. Please visit her website at shiraweinberger.com and drop her a message to thank her for her amazing display of compassion.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Positive Thoughts

It's difficult to think positively when up till now, we've pretty much gotten the worst news at each stage. We went from thinking benign tumor to malignant tumor. We thought the tumor had been completely removed, only to find out that it had infiltrated the brain stem. We went from thinking it was a slow growing tumor to finding that there are some fast growing cells as well. At this rate, I don't even want to think about some of the cure and remission rates that we've found, or some of the really bad side effects from the chemotherapy.

But we have had a bunch of positives, including:
  • Isabella was hours away from herniating her brain stem and dying. We were extremely lucky to have gotten Isabella to NYU when we did and have the right people available to work on her.
  • The tumor was massive and completely replaced her left temporal lobe (10cm by 7 cm). The doctors said that they have seen tumors half this size that permanently wiped out a lot of functionality. Amazingly, Isabella's brain rewired itself and made new connections to work around the tumor.
  • Aside from the loss of her right hand and leg, she is the same Isabella! She's just as smart, and fun and goofy and grumpy. With any brain surgery, there is always a chance of altering personalities or permanently losing some physical skills.
  • Her right side continues to improve on a day by day basis. She can move her right arm and stand up and walk with some assistance. When in the "right mood", she'll do things with her right hand, and we expect her to be able to use her right fingers with more therapy.
  • We thought that they would need to cut off all her hair for the surgery, but instead, they only had to shave a small strip for the incision. This is going to allow us to take a formal family picture with most of her hair before she goes to chemotherapy.
  • The support that we've received from family and friends have been nothing short of amazing and uplifting.

It's been such an emotional roller coaster that it's hard to enjoy the positives only to know that a negative can be lurking right around the corner. But we have to hold on to these positives and use them to help us through the negatives.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving, Part 2

Julianne, her dad, Annalise and Nathaniel came down to the hospital so that we can all spend Thanksgiving together. The rehab floor had a ton of food with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. As soon as Isabella saw Annalise and Nathaniel, she immediately lit up and couldn't stop smiling (except of course when we took pictures of her!) We played, ate, and laughed. For the first time in over a week, our family was together and even though we were in the hospital, we felt normal.

And you can definitely tell the difference with Isabella. She wasn't cranky and didn't complain with her therapy. Annalise even accompanied her to one of her therapy sessions and Isabella loved having her sister around. Here are some pictures from our day.

All the kids on the Pediatric Rehab floor gather around the table in the playroom for Thanksgiving dinner.

Isabella loved having her sister around and could not stop smiling as they played all afternoon.

Nathaniel apparently thought that the foot rests on Isabella's wheelchair were made just for him. No matter where Isabella was, Nathaniel would try to sit or stand on the footrests. Here, Isabella tries to eat at the table, but Nathaniel goes ahead and grabs a seat.

Even though our family was together for only a couple hours, we had a ton of fun. Since Isabella refused to smile for posed pictures, we all put on our best grumpy faces for this picture....except for Julianne....

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Now that it is officially Thanksgiving, I'd like to thank everyone for the tremendous support and outpouring of thoughts and prayers we received. This has been and will continue to be the most trying times of our lives and we'd never be able to get through it without you. In particular, we'd like to thank my mom and Julianne's parents who have helped around the house while Julianne and I stay with Isabella in the hospital. We'd also like to thank my brother, EJ, and Julianne's brother and his wife, Mark and Beth who have stopped by to help around the house.

Thanksgiving for us will be very different this year. Normally, we gather at a relative's house and eat all day until we pass out. This year, we will be spending Thanksgiving in the Rusk Institute with a bunch of other families in similar situations. It will be different, and difficult, but at least we will be together.

I am confident that we are giving Isabella the best treatment possible and giving her the best chance of beating this. I am hopeful that come next Thanksgiving, I will have many more things to be thankful for, especially celebrating Isabella's health at home.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Meeting with the Oncologist

Isabella is beginning to adjust to her new surroundings in rehab. She started out cranky at having to move to yet another location, by not cooperating with the therapists. Finally in the afternoon, she began to adjust and started participating in activities. She got a little cranky late in the day, but that could be because she didn't get a lot of sleep being in a new place and all.

Julianne and I met with the oncologist, who will be treating Isabella. Although they still don't have the final pathology, they show a number of different cancer cells in her tumor, with some of them being aggressive gliomas. This was pretty much our worst nightmare.

We hope to start an aggressive chemotherapy treatment within the next week or two that will last 5 cycles over the course of the next 5-6 months. Over that time, we will have several MRI's taken to track how well what's left of the tumor is reacting to the chemo and hopefully, at the end of the cycles, there will be nothing left.

We know that the prognosis for malignant gliomas are generally not good, but the oncologist pointed out to us that they are still treating this to cure the cancer and not just prolong the inevitable. The next several months are going to be very difficult for us. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Off to Rehab

Isabella was just discharged from the Pediatric floor and is in inpatient rehab in the Rusk building. This building is adjoining the Tisch building where we were staying.

The rehab regimen here sounds pretty intense and very structured. They have set times for when they will do physical therapy, occupational therapy, and if necessary, speech therapy. Although to be honest, she's been talking fine. They also have teachers from the Board of Ed to keep the brain sharp. They have stuff scheduled from 9 until 4.

Isabella has continued to improve. She can now pick up a chicken nugget with her right hand and feed herself. Although it takes a litlle effort, she couldn't even move her arm a week ago. Everyone here is still amazed at the progress she's making. One nurse commented that she has never seen someone recover so quickly in her 17 years! Wait till the teachers find out she can already read!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Good Ol' Isabella

Here are just a couple pictures of Isabella today. The first shows a couple cookies that her older sister Annalise made for her. The second one is with her goofing around with a chicken nugget in her mouth. And finally, the last one is with her finally smiling. This picture actually took a piece of ingenuity on my part. She still stubbornly refuses to smile for the camera, which resulted in a bunch of goofy, frowning pictures. Finally, I said I wanted to get a good picture of her frowning, then voila! Big smile! :)

What a Week

[Editors Note: I am going to send out a quick update and backfill the details from the previous days, as I am sure people would like to see how Isabella is doing. Be sure to check below when I add some posts from previous days.]

It is now just past 5:30 PM on Monday, November 24. Exactly one week ago, our lives were thrown for a giant loop when we found a massive tumor in Isabella's head. It seems like a million years ago, and yet, it seems just like yesterday. We've had more ups and downs than a roller coaster, but right now, we seem to be cruising right along.

Physically, Isabella's recovery has been amazing. She's been eating and drinking great and been talking a chatting up a storm. Her right arm and leg are still weak, but she can move them a little and she can wiggle her fingers and toes which is a great sign. Unfortunately, Isabella is stubborn for the physical therapist who tried to work with her which could delay her full recovery. Surprisingly, when the pediatric rehab physician stopped by, Isabella was able to raise her right arm straight above her head and stretch out her fingers (even though she says it hurt a little). She was also able to stretch out her right leg and earlier took a few steps on her own.

As far as what's left of the tumor, we still have not heard back the pathology results. So we're still in limbo as far as that is concerned. But as the doctor suggested, there's no need to worry now, but what we do know is that Isabella is getting back to her normal self. And that in itself is enough to make us smile.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Isabella Makes Incredible Progress

Over this past weekend, Isabella has made some incredible progress physically. Immediately after the surgery, she wasn't able to move her right arm or right leg at all, although she could wiggle her fingers and toes a little with some effort. But over the last couple days, Isabella has been moving her right arm and leg and stretching out her fingers. She's still favoring her left side heavily, but we're trying to encourage her to use her right side to build strength. She has also been drinking and eating very well which will contribute to her growing strength.

Just tonight, I was talking in the hallway with another parent. When I looked over at her bed, I noticed that Isabella had climbed out of bed on her own and took a couple steps towards me. Her right leg finally gave out because it was so weak and she fell on her bottom, but we were both extremely excited that she had tried to walk. Her smile was from ear to ear! It turns out that Isabella had to go to the bathroom, which is why she got out of bed, so I guess we just have to find the proper motiviation for her!

Friday, November 21, 2008

We Make A Breakthrough Discovery

We just made an amazing discovery with Isabella. We found that if we take her out of her room, she immediately perks up! The Pediatric department provides some red wagons, and we put her in one and just took a stroll around the floor. Isabella immediately cheered up and began playing "I Spy" with me. We then went over to a lounge area where Isabella sat up and spoke and even smiled a little. We knew she had grown frustrated sitting in her bed, but we didn't know that just taking her out of her bed would have such a positive impact. We must have walked around that floor a dozen times so it was getting more difficult finding new things to "spy".

At one point, I asked Isabella how many times she wanted to walk around. She held up both hands to indicate 10 times. Keep in mind that before this, she had not used her right hand since the surgery.

In the picture below, we came across a magnetic board with a bunch of letters. She helped me spell out a bunch of words, but as you can see, we had to get creative as we ran out of some common letters. You can also notice that they finally took the big bandage around her head. Amazingly, they only had to shave a strip of hair from her head where they made the incision.

Isabella Gets Some Visitors

Isabella had some visitors stop by, first it was my mom and EJ, then it was Julianne's mom and Annalise. Isabella didn't do well with either visits as she just sat in her bed and moped. We at least thought that seeing her older sister would cheer her up, but that didn't work either, as they just sat in bed and watched TV.

It must be very difficult for Isabella, who has grown extremely frustrated with where she is. She has a bunch of IVs in her and tubes running everywhere, plus she has to constantly take all sorts of yucky tasting medicine. We're trying to keep our spirits up as best as we can, but as some of you may know, Isabella is strong headed - if she doesn't want to do something, she will not do it.

We're hoping that this is just part of an adjustment period and hopefully, she'll liven up soon.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Followup MRI Results

We were hoping that the followup MRI would show what we had hoped: the Dr. Wisoff had extracted all of the brain tumor from Isabella and we would be done with all this. When we reviewed the MRI with Dr. Wisoff, he gave us the good news that Isabella's brain was already shifting back to normal and that there was no additional swelling or immediate cause for concern. Unfortunately, he saw some areas where he believed the tumor had infiltrated Isabella's brain stem that needed further testing.

This was not good.

Dr. Wisoff initially thought that the malignant tumor was either a PNET or a glioma. Neither have a very good prognosis, but the PNET can be treated using chemotherapy with success rates from 60 to 80%. On the other hand, a glioma may or may not be treatable and the patient usually only lives for another year or so.

Initial tests on the tumor ruled out a PNET, which caused our hopes to sink even more. Dr. Wisoff suggested that we not worry about it until we know for sure, but it's extremely difficult to function knowing how dire the outlook is. I guess the best we can do is savor every minute we have and still hope for the best.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Day After

They say that children recover amazingly well from surgery compared to adults. We were fully expecting Isabella to be intubated for a few days and for her to be incoherent at best for a few days. But amazingly, Isabella came back from surgery not intubated, and she was pretty lucid the next morning, albeit a bit groggy. The giant bandage around her head looked like a big helmet, with her hair coming out from the top.

The day was pretty quite as Isabella rested in her bed. The only thing we had scheduled was the followup MRI, which we finally did later in the afternoon. Julianne had gone home to see Annalise and Nathaniel, so I was left to be with Isabella while they took her MRI.

Isabella slept through the MRI, which was good so that they wouldn't have to sedate her further to keep still, and she slept most of the day. But sometime in the middle of the night, she woke up and said she was very thirsty. She had been on IV's since she came out of surgery, so this was a big step. Then she said she was hungry and ate a few crackers. We finally got to sleep pretty late on Wednesday night, but all in all, it was a pretty good day.

A Long Day Comes to an End

Dr. Wisoff said the operation should take about 3 hours, and that no news was good news. We ran out and got a quick bite to eat at a local diner. We had left our cell phone numbers in case we needed to run back right away. I'm glad we didn't get any calls, because I know we would have freaked if either of our phones rang. We picked at our meals and tried to eat, but neither of us had much of an apettite. It was a cold night and we walked back quickly to the hospital.

We got back and waited in the Pediatric ICU where they would be bringing Isabella after the surgery. 12:30 AM came and went with no word from the O.R. Again, no news was good news. At 1:30 AM, we began to get a little nervous. If Dr. Wisoff was as good as we hoped he was, we figured he was a perfectionist and was making sure he was getting everything. But of course, there was always that feeling of dread in the back of our heads.

Finally, at 2:30 AM, Dr. Wisoff briskly came into the room and announced that he was done. He said that he had gotten everything that he could see and was extremely pleased with the outcome. A huge wave of relief swept over Julianne and me and we thanked him profusely. They were going to close Isabella up and bring her up as soon as they were done. She would have a follow up MRI the following afternoon just to make sure they got everything and that her brain was shifting back in place.

Around 4:00 AM, they finally wheeled Isabella into her room. She had a giant bandage covering her entire, but amazingly, she still had most of her hair. We were never so happy at that moment to see her come through the surgery. In the Pediatric ICU, there is only room for one parent to sleep bedside with the child, so Julianne stayed. I went to the parents lounge, where I finally got to sleep around 5:00 AM.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Isabella Goes to the O.R.

By the time I got to NYU at around 7:00 PM, Julianne and Isabella were already in the MRI area. The Physicians Assistant, Kristen, was extremely friendly and helpful and made us feel as comfortable as we possibly could. In addition, the pediatric neuro-anesthesiologist, Dr. Max, was prepping Isabella for the MRI. Dr. Max was instrumental in saving Isabella because he personally ran up to the Operating Room where Dr. Wisoff was in the middle of another procedure and told him that he needed to do Isabella right after his current operation.

Dr. Max felt that based on Isabella's current condition, she was close to herniating her brain stem. Brain stem herniation is when the brain stem separates from the rest of the brain because of swelling or pressure from a tumor and is fatal.

Around 9 PM, we finally met Dr. Wisoff. The MRI had already confirmed that the brain stem had already shifted due to the growth of the tumor. He also felt that the tumor was malignant, meaning it had penetrated good brain tissue. He would be able to remove most of the tumor, but he wouldn't be able to remove any that had penetrated - that would need to treated with either radiation or chemotherapy or both, depending on the type of tumor. Our hearts immediately sank, because up till now, we were hoping that it was a benign tumor that was completely separate from the rest of the brain and could be completely removed. Obviously, the prognosis for a malignant tumor is far more dire than a benign tumor, but at this point, the priority was to remove the bulk of the tumor.

We walked with Dr. Max as he wheeled Isabella up to the Operating Room. Dr. Wisoff estimated the operation to take about 3 hours. Dr. Max reminded us to give Isabella a kiss, then we watched them wheel her through the O.R. doors. It was 9:30 PM.

Our Family Picture

We took our last formal family picture more than three years ago, before Nathaniel was born. Because I'm usually behind the camera, we have very few pictures of all of us in the same shot. The last one we have is from Nathaniel's 1st birthday back in August. We had an appointment to take a formal portrait this Saturday, November 22. Julianne had found a perfect set of dresses for the girls and a matching suit for Nathaniel. She made me get a haircut exactly 2 weeks ago so that my hair would be the perfect length for the picture.

It was apparent that we wouldn't be able to make our family portrait appointment on Saturday, so we were hoping to maybe take a quick snapshot with our digital camera before they operated on Isabella. We were fully expecting them to shave her head, so we wanted to take this opportunity to take a picture with her beautiful hair intact. As we were preparing to transport Isabella down to NYU so we can treat the tumor in her head, I was putting together a list of items to pick up from home. As Julianne was riding with Isabella in the ambulance, I would pick up the kids at home (my mom and Julianne's mom, who had just come down from Vermont, were watching the kids), pick up all our clothes, and bring everything down to NYU. Hopefully, by the time they got to NYU, Isabella would be lucid enough so that we could take a picture.

Unfortunately, I got a call from Julianne around 5:00 PM after they arrived at NYU. Isabella did not get any better on the ride down, and in fact vomited more and seemed to be getting worse. There was no way we would be able to take a picture. Instead, I gathered some overnight essentials for us, left the kids at home with the grandmas and headed straight for NYU. The medical staff there was extremely concerned about Isabella's condition and was considering operating on her that night.

Off to New York City

Back in May, I brought Isabella into work with me to New York City. She loved taking the train in and loved staring out the window of my office to count all the yellow taxis. While she was in her delirious state on Monday night, she said to me in a slurred sentence, "I want to go to New York City with you".

Ironically, Isabella would get her wish. Julianne rode down with Isabella in the ambulance from Bridgeport to NYU. The EMTs brought medicine along just in case she seized. They wouldn't be riding with the lights on, but would do so if necessary, and would also stop at a hospital along the way if they had to. Aside from some more vomiting, Julianne and Isabella got to NYU at 4:30.

The Best Decision We Ever Made

I got Annalise on the school bus at 8 AM on Tuesday. My mom and brother had come over late on Monday night after hearing the news and they would watch Nathaniel while I went back to the hospital. I gathered some stuff for Julianne since she hadn't been home since Monday morning.

All the doctors in the Pediatric ICU were having a meeting on Tuesday morning to discuss how Isabella should be treated and I wanted to be there for it. When I got to the hospital at 9:30, Isabella was knocked out since she was up and agitated until 6:30. Julianne told me about one of the best neurosurgeons in the country at Yale, but he apparently wasn't available until later in the week. She also received another call from one of her colleagues of a Dr. Jeff Wisoff at New York University who is also one of the best pediatric neurosurgeons in the country. We felt more and more that we had to take Isabella to Yale or NYU, and not just for the neurosurgeon, but because those places had additional dedicated, specialized staff. For example, while Bridgeport has a general anesthesiologist, Yale and NYU would have pediatric anesthesiologists.

We finally met with Dr. Lipow at around 11:00 AM. He agreed that it would be best to transfer Isabella and suggested NYU where he knew Dr. Wisoff. This was quite a relief as we weren't quite sure how to approach the Bridgeport staff to say that we wanted to transfer. We also thought it was fate since she received the call about Dr. Wisoff just minutes before we met with Dr. Lipow. The Bridgeport nurses contacted NYU and Dr. Wisoff and they agreed to accept Isabella that day. They arranged for a transport team and an ambulance to come from New York to bring Isabella to NYU.

Throughout all this, Isabella remained fast asleep. We suspected it was due to being up all night. However, just before the EMT's arrived to bring Isabella down, she began to vomit. We didn't know it at the time, but Isabella was rapidly growing worse. We also didn't know it at the time, but our decision to send Isabella down to NYU saved her life.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What Do We Do Next?

After the MRI, we brought Isabella up to the Pediatric ICU at Bridgeport Hospital. In addition to the sedative, they had given her a steroid to decrease the swelling and pressure in her head. The drugs that they had given her had caused her to become delirious and agitated. The doctors had wanted to get a second MRI so they can better determine how best to remove the tumor, but unfortunately, Isabella would not be able to lay still long enough. So the plan was to continue the steroid pressure to relieve the pressure and do a second MRI in the morning.

In the meantime, we were already making calls all over for referrals (by this time, it was 8 PM or so). We wanted the best treatment for Isabella and felt we had to go somewhere else, perhaps Yale or somewhere in New York City. Julianne's mom called people up at the University of Vermont where she works and where Julianne graduated from Med School. Julianne also called her boss to get some referrals from the Yale. In addition, the word was already going around the hospital on our situation, and since Julianne worked in the hospital, she was receiving calls from other doctors.

Julianne stayed with Isabella overnight, while I went home with Annalise and Nathaniel to get ready for the next day. Isabella had a long night of delirious visions and she said she saw everything from her classmates to Santa Claus. She finally fell asleep at 6:30 AM on Tuesday.

Our Life Changes

At around 5:30 PM, on Monday, November 17, our lives changed drastically and forever.

I was sitting in the Emergency Room of Bridgeport Hospital. A doctor whose name I can't remember came into the room where I was waiting with Annalise and Nathaniel and said, "They found a mass in her brain." It was like somebody punched me in the stomach. The doctor continued to talk, but I didn't hear a thing. Inside my little Isabella's head, there was a tumor growing and if left there, would kill her.

Up in the MRI room, Julianne was sitting with Isabella. We had already suspected that it was neurological in nature. As the MRI scan ran, Julianne comforted Isabella as she lay in the giant machine that was making loud noises. Julianne peeked over at the technicians sitting behind the glass and was immediately devastated by what she saw. As the images of Isabella's head came into view, looks of horror ran across every one of their faces. Julianne herself would not look at the images, but she knew this wasn't good.

The MRI scan found a massive tumor in Isabella's head. It was 10 cm x 7 cm and had replaced her entire left temporal lobe. It had already begun to affect her, as she had been complaining of headaches and just over the weekend, we noticed tremors in her right hand. The tremors affected her so much, that Isabella had started using her left hand for her primary activity including writing and eating.

The remainder of this blog will describe what happened over the course of the next days as our family now deals with the worst scenario that we can imagine.

Growing Concern

I got up early and was at work by 7:30 on Monday so I can get a headstart to the day. But I couldn't get anything done, as I had this bad feeling about Isabella. I googled children, headaches and tremors and none of the hits brought up anything good. Julianne called me shortly after she dropped the kids off at school. She talked with Isabella's teacher who did mention that she just noticed some strange behavior from Isabella just on Friday. Mrs. Stelly brought out some of Isabella's writing samples and up till last week, her handwriting was typical. But on Friday, you could see a noticable change in her handwriting as it was much lighter and much shakier. Mrs. Stelly thought nothing of it at the time, because she thought Isabella may have been sick. She even mentioned that Isabella had been swinging on the monkey bars earlier in the week.

At 9:30, Mrs. Stelly called Julianne because Isabella complained of a headache and had started to walk funny. We had an appointment with the pediatrician at 1 PM, but Julianne wanted to get her in right away. She gave me a call to update me from the doctors office. The doctors suggested that we immediately go to the Emergency Room to have an MRI done. Julianne took Isabella up to Bridgeport Hospital. I made plans to jump on the next train home to pick up Annalise so we can meet up with them in Bridgeport.

When we all finally met up in the Bridgeport E.R., you would never had guessed that Isabella was sick. She was running around with her brother and sister, laughing, and playing. At around 3:30, they came by to give Isabella a small sedative so that she would sit still for the MRI. We even played a game to see who could sit still the longest. At around 4:15, they came by and said they were ready to take her up to the MRI. Isabella had calmed down just a bit from the sedative and Julianne said that she should carry her. "I'm not even tired," Isabella said, as she stumbled off the bed and wobbled toward the door, eyes half-way shut.

Julianne carried Isabella out of the room up to the MRI room, and all Annalise, Nathaniel, and I could do was wait.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Fun Weekend

The weekend of November 15-16 started off like every other weekend. We all slept in a little later (me even later than the rest). The kids were up watching cartoons as Julianne made them breakfast. When I came downstairs, though, Julianne asked me to look at something peculiar. She asked Isabella to take a sip of water from a cup, and she did so, but with her left hand. We then asked her to take a sip with her right hand and she did, but this time, her right hand trembled a little as she took a sip.

Julianne also pointed out that Isabella was coloring and writing with her left hand. Odd, we thought, because she was always a righty, and even stranger was that her handwriting was actually pretty good with her left hand. We made note of it and scheduled an appointment with the pediatrician for Monday morning. We would also talk with Isabella's teacher to see if she noticed anything.

The rest of the weekend was typical, with running errands and working around the yard. I had stayed home with Annalise to rake the leaves while Isabella and Nathaniel ran errands with Julianne. As a reward for being good all weekend, we took the kids to "My Three Sons" which is a children's playplace here in Norwalk. Isabella ran around and showed no signs of anything wrong, except for favoring her left hand. In the picture above, she's riding a toy train and holding her brother to make sure he doesn't fall.

We left relatively early after Annalise and Isabella picked out their prizes. They both had school the next day and had to take a bath and I had to get ready for work. Little did we know that the tumor that was growing inside Isabella's head was about to cause much more damage over the next 24 hours.