By Jeffrey Weinstein
In March of 1995, my wife Teri, and twin three-year-old daughters, Riley and Taylor, were living in Los Angeles with my wife's parents. I was working 250 miles away in El Centro, California, driving in on weekends to be with them. My wife was six months pregnant with our son Max. One day Riley complained of a headache and showed flu-like symptoms. Our family pediatrician examined her and told Teri that Riley probably had some childhood virus.
Twenty-four hours later, Riley was in the emergency room at Tarzana Medical Center. X-Rays and MRIs revealed a mass at the base of her brain. My wife and I were told Riley's mass was in the brain stem; it had bled and was probably still bleeding. We prepared to say good-bye to our daughter. Then the doctor told us that she needed to be transported to UCLA Medical Center where pediatric neurosurgeons could try to help her. It was her only chance.
When Riley arrived at UCLA, we were met by Dr. Jorge Lazareff. He confirmed the seriousness of Riley's condition, but told us not to give up hope. The fact that Riley was still alive after such massive bleeding meant that she was a fighter.
The first of many surgeries followed, lasting fourteen hours. It involved removing a piece of Riley's skull, separating the two halves of the brain, manipulating the brain stem and then removing the mass. The veins within the mass can rupture at anytime, causing a stroke. It is crucial to remove all of the mass to ensure that no additional strokes happen in the future.
Riley had five such surgeries. The staff at UCLA said it was a miracle that she was still with us.
During that first surgery, the doctors manipulated the brain stem, disconnecting it from the rest of the brain. This causes the brain to loose its ability to talk to the body. Riley lost all motor skills; for a while she needed a respirator just to breathe. Most of the doctors told us that we should not expect much from Riley and to be thankful she was even alive. However, Doctor Lazareff said that Riley might prove the medical establishment wrong again.
When we finally took Riley home, she could not eat, walk, talk or do even the basic movements expected of a newborn. My wife, Teri, worked daily with Riley, while I returned to work. Each weekend, when I returned to L.A., I witnessed a new miracle. With the love only a mother could give, Riley learned how to eat, talk and move her limbs again. During this period, after seeing a dance recital on television, Riley announced that she wanted to be a ballerina when see grew up. Riley's spirit was dreaming of dancing even before she had relearned to walk.
Then we received the news that a recent MRI had shown more of the mass. In August, Riley once again went to UCLA. The single operation that would remove the remaining mass turned into seven more surgeries and five weeks in the hospital.
Once again, Riley beat the odds and survived the surgeries. Once again, her motor skills were sacrificed to reach the mass by manipulating the brain stem during the operation. Once again, she woke up only able to communicate her pain with her eyes. But once again, Riley did not give up.
By now I had relocated my job back to L.A., and I saw firsthand her daily struggle to do the simple things we all take for granted.
As I write this, Riley is a beautiful six-year-old girl. For the past three years she has fought many battles and has gotten the upper hand on a war that most adults would have lost long ago. As with all wars, there are emotional and psychological wounds besides the physical damage. Yet Riley's laughter rings throughout our home every day. Physically she still battles some facial paralysis and has some vision problems, both of which are expected to improve with therapy. Yet, in June of this year, Riley's dream came true - she performed in her first ballet recital.