Alex climbed out of his crew boat after rowing on the Navesink River. He had just made the travel team as a freshman and another headache was not going to stop him from rowing. He had been having headaches for maybe a year, but just started to really talk about them in the past six months. We had been to several doctors, and had an appointment to see a neurologist, but he would not be able to see us until May and this was April. Our ears, nose, and throat doctor decided that Alex should have an MRI. We had an appointment right after crew. Alex’s only symptom was headaches, and although all of our physicians truly believed that this was consistent with migraines, Dr. Winarsky must have had a suspicion that something else was going on.
We ran home after practice, grabbed dinner, flew out the door for Alex’s MRI, and did not return for almost a month. The MRI technician called me in the back room to put me on the phone with the off-site radiologist. “If it were my son, I would go straight to the ER” and “there is a mass in your son’s brain” are all that I remember from our conversation. I cannot call it a nightmare; you wake up from a nightmare. This was the beginning of a new reality that I could not fathom. Waiting in the ER I could not stand the feeling of being in my own body. Meanwhile, Alex lay in the bed calmly, not panicking, just waiting.
Monmouth Medical Center has an excellent neurology department, but it does not cater specifically to pediatric patients. The ER doctor sent us, by ambulance, to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). On April 8th 2013 my 15-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and on April 10th it was successfully removed. Alex was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a cancerous brain tumor. Two major factors in Alex’s favor are that they were able to remove the entire tumor and that it did not spread beyond the tumor site. This type of tumor is very treatable with 6 weeks of radiation and chemo combination, followed by one year of chemotherapy. It is grueling, but Alex has not had a moment of self-pity or negativity. It is beyond amazing.
Alex spent almost a month in the hospital between the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, the Oncology Unit, and the Wood Center for Rehabilitation. The tumor was located in the coordination center of the brain, so he needed help with walking and balance post-surgery. He also suffered from double vision and wore an eye patch, his sense of taste was affected, and he grappled with other coordination-based side effects. He received occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy while in the hospital. Many of the initial post-surgical issues that Alex has battled seem to be resolving or have almost entirely resolved just three months later. I know that the excellence of the physicians and therapists at CHOP are the reason why my son is doing so well. But I also believe that Alex’s unmitigated determination and positive outlook are driving forces in his recovery.
Alex was unable to complete his freshman year at high school. However, prior to his diagnosis and with daily sometimes excruciating headaches, he was able to remain in all honors classes and achieve high honor roll designation every marking period, volunteer at Monmouth Medical Center, and make the travel crew team. Every time I look at Alex I am overwhelmed by what a remarkable, courageous, and resilient young man he is. His dad, Fab, brothers, Ray and Will, and I could not be more proud of him. Alex’s nickname from the time he was a toddler has been “Champ.” I believe that really says it all.