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  • A Bittersweet Score:A Father’s Account of His Family’s 20-Year Journey After a Pediatric Brain Tumor Diagnosis
  • Christopher Riley

I hadn’t seen him for 20 years, not since the day he drilled a hole in Peter’s head and left the stainless steel drill and bloody bit on the bedside table. He figured prominently in the story I often told of that day when he, a doctor in training, [End Page 3] informed my wife Kathy and me that, “Wow,” our five-year-old son had “an impressive tumor” in his brain. He announced it with the admiration I reserve for a touchdown pass or stunning sunset. Since that day, he had become a venerable physician. Back then he was the resident who met us in the ER after our pediatrician told us that the MRI of Peter’s brain was “not normal,” that “there might be a growth.” As if there might not be. I imagined that Peter’s brain might simply have an unusual shape, or that the scan revealed some undiscovered fracture and the authorities only wanted to lock me up and all with my son would be well. The thrilled young doctor slew those hopes with an ice pick: “Wow, that’s an impressive tumor.” I said, “That’s the first time anyone has used the word tumor.” The doctor appeared mortified and started over.

Now 20 years later we found ourselves at the same party and I felt a compulsion to introduce myself, remind him we’d met that day in 1993, and tell him what had become of Peter and his family in the decades since he’d made that mortifying mistake, one I hoped had become for him a defining moment. To my disappointment, he didn’t seem to remember.

Peter was my red-haired boy. Fearless and whip smart, he told a stream of knock-knock jokes and performed dance routines choreographed by his 8-year-old sister Rachel. Six months of headaches, vomiting and clumsy falls led to discovery of the tumor. When I phoned my parents with the news, I couldn’t speak the words, words that felt as if they spelled my boy’s doom. My body refused to pronounce them.

The war for Peter’s life began with surgery. I sat with Kathy in the surgical waiting area, fearing every minute that I would see the surgeon approaching with his shoulders slumped in mortal defeat. I learned during those hours that fear of your child’s death is a physical pain, a constriction in the chest, a suffocation. At the end of that wait, the surgeon told us the tumor was out and Peter had survived. The pathology indicated the tumor was a medulloblastoma. Without additional treatment, including radiation, it was certain to come back. Kathy’s knees buckled. Having just endured one life-and-death battle, we were plunged into another. To complicate matters, Peter wasn’t waking from surgery. Even after the anesthesia wore off, Peter remained groggy, unable to move or focus his eyes.

Through the following days, Peter failed to rouse or speak. Sores formed at the back of his neck where his unswallowed saliva pooled. Neurologists doubted he knew us. His doctors hoped Peter would recover but it was possible he would remain as he was indefinitely. As I sat holding his useless hand, watching his useless body, I thought I’d never loved him as much as I did now.

Peter’s doctors presented two treatment options. The first consisted of relatively high doses of daily radiation, the most effective known method for preventing the return of the cancer. But radiation wasn’t good for young brains. It “shaved IQ points,” they said in wild understatement. So they offered a second, experimental option, one that reduced radiation by a third and added months of chemotherapy. The doctors hoped this new regimen would be as effective as the old but cause less cognitive damage. They asked us to choose. It seemed impossible. We gathered the scant available data. We weighed the risks. We prayed. We took a leap. Without asking him, we made a decision for Peter we knew...


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