Apodaca: Serendipity saves a young life

This is a story about a family crisis, medical professionals who showed the care and professionalism we all desire but don't always see, and a boy at the center of it all who defied the odds and then wondered what all the fuss was about.

The boy in question is 12-year-old Harrison Dill of Newport Beach, a sixth-grade student at Anderson Elementary.

Harry is a bright kid who likes to read, excels at school and loves baseball. He's tall for his age, but his aw-shucks grin and slightly mischievous green eyes betray his youth. The youngest of four children, he has a keen sense of humor about his place in the family pecking order, saying one of his older siblings considers him "the tattletale, annoying little brother."

Like many kids, Harry had braces, and that's where his tale begins.

Last November, Harry's orthodontist recommended that he have an impacted tooth removed. But the X-rays revealed a mysterious dark spot, which led to further imaging, which led to devastating news: Harry had a brain tumor.

"The walls were caving in around me," recalled Harry's mother, Amanda. Still, the diagnosis was an amazing catch that might have gone undetected but for some heads-up radiological work.

Amanda and husband, Rick, were referred to Michael Muhonen, the director of neurosurgery at Children's Hospital of Orange County.

Muhonen, who is highly regarded both for his medical skills and his kindness, abides by the tenet that all patients should be treated like family. He was compassionate but candid with the Dills. The tumor was huge, and it was on the brain stem, a highly delicate and dangerous spot.

By a sheer stroke of luck, Harry had one ace the hole. Instead of becoming inextricably intertwined with the brain stem, which would have rendered it inoperable, this tumor had grown backward and away from the brain into an open space.

"That's not usual," Muhonen said. "It's miraculous."

Miraculous because the tumor's unlikely position gave Muhonen confidence that he could get most of it out. He recommended immediate surgery, which was scheduled for a few days later.

The waiting must have been agony for Harry's parents, but he seemed to take it in stride. At the time, his winter league baseball team was in playoffs, and he insisted on participating in a two-game lineup the day before his surgery. Word got out, and a crowd of well-wishers turned out in a show of support.

In hindsight, Harry and his family realized that the tumor had caused weakness in his dominant right side, and had robbed him of some accuracy and coordination.

But on that day in November when Harry approached home plate — his surgery just hours away — he felt strong and calm. He swung, heard the crack of the bat, and watched the ball soar over the fence.

The crowd went wild.

"There was not a dry eye in that place," Amanda said.

As if to put an exclamation point on it, Harry hit another home run in the next game. To him, it was just another day at the ball field. At home later, he asked his mom, "Why were all those people there?"

During surgery the next day, Muhonen was aided by a medical instrument that acts like a global positioning satellite, or GPS, device to help guide him as he sought to remove the abnormal growth while preserving normal tissue. Even so, he expected that he'd need to leave a bit of tumor behind in order to limit the risk of neurological damage, and that a second operation would be required.

When the area was scanned after the surgery, however, no traces of the tumor could be found. It was a fantastic result, but Harry wasn't out of the woods yet; it remained to be seen how well he'd recover from the trauma to his brain.

Once again, expectations were exceeded. During the next week in the hospital and another week at a rehab facility, where he was put through exhausting and sometimes painful exercises, Harry's recovery was remarkably quick.

He returned to school after winter break. A follow-up scan again showed no tumor, and a healthier brain stem.

Harry was well enough to attend recent Little League tryouts. His dad, Rick, told him that all he had to do was show up, but when Harry got there, he did what came naturally. He picked up a glove and a bat, and went through the drills just like all the other boys.

Not everything is back to normal. Harry's strength and motor skills are still recovering. He has a scary-looking scar on the back of his head, much of which was concealed by his thick brown hair when I saw him. But he talked about getting a buzz cut, which could expose him to some curious looks.

Harry also faces regular monitoring for any possible recurrence. If he's clear for 12 years, he said, "I'm out of the woods."

When I asked him how he felt about that, he shrugged. "It's just another part of my life," he said. "It's not really that big of a deal."

Sorry, Harry, but it's OK to shed a bit of your innate modesty just this once. You are a very big deal, and I'm looking forward to watching you play baseball for many years to come.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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