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Bouncing back: Eli's journey through a brain tumor diagnosis and recovery

Bouncing back: Eli's journey through a brain tumor diagnosis and recovery

In August 2020, Elijah “Eli” started off his seemingly normal junior year of high school in Picayune, Mississippi, with dedication to his school soccer team and boundless energy. Eli started playing soccer when he was just four years old, and started on the varsity team when he was in 7th grade. He was the embodiment of vitality and determination.

In January 2021, things started to change. Eli began experiencing headaches that wouldn’t go away. The headaches got more and more debilitating which led him to an appointment with his pediatrician in Slidell. “We thought it had something to do with a go-cart wreck he had been in a few months prior,” explains Tina, Elijah’s mom. “He had gone on a go-cart excursion on his birthday with his cousin and crashed which led to him blacking out for a second. He was experiencing bad neck pain after that, so we thought he had whiplash.” The pediatrician thought something orthopedic could be going on, so Eli was referred to Children’s Hospital New Orleans orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Tony Gonzales. On March 18, Dr. Gonzales examined Eli and noticed that he had some reflex issues in his fingers, which prompted him to order an MRI of Eli’s neck.

Tina remembers receiving the MRI results later that night. The MRI captured the bottom of a tumor. With just those results to go on, doctors were unsure whether the tumor was malignant or benign. “We thought we were going to lose our son,” remembers Tina.

The next morning, they came back to Children’s Hospital where they met Dr. Oritsejolomi “Tola” Roberts, pediatric neurosurgeon, for an MRI of Eli’s head, neck, and spine. Thankfully they discovered that the tumor was benign and talked through next steps with Dr. Roberts. Although there was some relief knowing that the tumor wasn’t cancerous, Eli and his family still had a long medical journey ahead of them.

Eli’s diagnosis was Juvenile Pilocytic Astrocytoma (JPA), a slow growing tumor that grows in the cerebrum, optic nerve pathways, brain stem, and cerebellum. Dr. Roberts scheduled Eli for a craniotomy first thing that Monday morning. Tina says, “We felt like he was in good hands with Dr. Roberts from the beginning. We immediately felt confident in him and that is what we needed at that time. Sixteen hours before that we were thinking our son was going to die.”

The next few days after the diagnosis were rough for Eli. He experienced horrible headaches due to the fluid that was building up around his brain. The pain was so extreme that it caused him to vomit. He was admitted into the ICU at Children’s Hospital and given medication to help drain the fluid and provide him with some much needed relief. On March 29, Dr. Roberts and the neurology team performed Eli’s craniotomy. The surgery went well and they were able to remove his tumor. The recovery process was slow but steady. “Right afterward he seemed great, but he couldn’t move his arms,” says Tina. “He had some nerve damage and had a really tough time using his arms.” Eli worked tirelessly with the Children’s Hospital rehab team to get his coordination back to normal. Tina says “He was very determined and was able to walk out of the hospital with a walker when he was discharged on April 1.”

The hardest part of the surgical experience for Eli was his time away from soccer. Soccer was an important part of his life that suddenly was ripped out from under him. In the weeks after his surgery, he had difficulty eating and gaining weight back at first. “One thing about Eli is that he does not quit. Once he got a little bit of relief, he would be out trying to do what he normally did. He didn’t let anything slow him down,” says Tina. It didn’t take long for Eli to get back onto the soccer field. However, Dr. Roberts had one condition for Eli to get back in the game: he had to wear a helmet to protect his head. Not wanting anything to stop him, he happily put on the helmet and started working back with the team in the summer of 2021, and was able to play with the team for his entire senior year.

Dr. Roberts was a guiding presence throughout Eli's recovery. “The care team at Children’s Hospital went above and beyond to put us at ease. Our story had a happy ending and I know that’s not always the case. I feel extremely blessed,” says Tina. “I feel like we were able to put full trust in all of the providers and caregivers at Children’s so all I had to worry about was the mom part.”

Today, Eli is a happy, healthy 19-year-old boy. He goes in for an MRI twice a year to make sure everything is normal. He still has a love for soccer and continues to stay in good shape by spending plenty of time in the gym. After graduating high school, Eli discovered another passion and has started a career as auto paint technician at a body shop. Eli and his family say they will always be indebted to Dr. Roberts and the Children’s Hospital neurology team for their incredible care.