For the first five years of her life, Hazlehurst, Ga. girl Jaya Wooten was the picture of health. Thriving at school and at home, the happy little Kindergartener with a beautiful smile never showed signs that anything was amiss until one night in September 2014 when her mother awoke to find her throwing up and having a seizure. By the time her father Jason got her to the emergency room at a Georgia ER a short time later, Jaya had become unresponsive.
“Our sweet little girl was perfectly normal one day and the next, she was in a hospital unresponsive in critical condition,” said Sue Jackson, Jaya’s grandmother “There had been absolutely no signs of trouble, no advance warning; just the seizure. It was mindboggling.”
Once at the emergency room, a CT scan revealed a mass about the size of an adult thumb extending deep into the front left lobe of Jaya’s brain. Her medical team decided to transfer her to a larger Georgia hospital about 110 miles away where more could be done for her. For the first few days, Jaya remained unconscious. When she finally came to, it took nearly a month in the hospital for doctors to get her seizures under control so they could go in and remove the tumor.
Jaya was diagnosed with grade II oligodendroglioma, a tumor that’s made up “helper” cells to the neurons in the brain. While rare in children, oligodendrogliomas are slow-growing, and can often be present for several years before they get big enough to cause symptoms like seizures, blurry vision or headaches. Removing them is difficult because they blend in with brain tissue, making it hard for neurosurgeons to tell the difference between them and the healthy matter they’ve invaded. When these tumors are successfully removed, most children remain tumor-free within five years. If any residual tumor cells are left behind, however, 28 percent are recurrence-free.
Three months after her initial surgery, a follow-up MRI showed that Jaya’s tumor was growing back. Devastated and looking for answers, her family found their way through word of mouth to the Walter and Michelle Stys Neuroscience Institute in Jacksonville, Florida, where they met with University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville pediatric neurosurgeon Philipp Aldana, MD. Dr. Aldana explained to them that chemotherapy was not an option for this type of tumor; that another surgery would be the most successful and recommended treatment for Jaya.
“I told the family there’s no way to treat this type of tumor with chemotherapy or radiation alone, and that the main mode of treatment is surgery,” said Dr. Aldana, co-medical director of the Walter and Michelle Stys Neuroscience Institute and medical director of the Lucy Gooding Children’s Neurosurgery Center. “These low-grade tumors are slow-growing but are known to recur when not completely removed.”
He added, “We have the technology at our Neuroscience Institute that helps ensure that the tumor is removed completely. With our image-guided Brainlab neuro-navigation technology and intraoperative MRI (iMRI), we are able to navigate in the brain with the use of real-time, GPS-like imaging that not only spares healthy tissue, but allows us to see during the surgery if we have removed the entire tumor.”
At the mid-point of Jaya’s eight-hour surgery, the iMRI in the neurosurgical operating suite at Wolfson Children’s Hospital showed there was indeed a small bit of tumor left behind, and Dr. Aldana and his pediatric neurosurgery team continued to work until a second scan showed that the area was completely clear. As important as it was to remove the entire tumor, the technology also allowed them to do it as safely as possible. Jaya’s tumor was growing near the part of the brain that controls behavior, and movement of the right side of the body.
“We just paced the floors during Jaya’s surgery. There’s so much that goes through your mind during a time like this. Would her speech be affected? Would her mobility? Would she still be the same happy child when she woke up?” said Jackson. “Not only was she fine, she got home in time to attend her Kindergarten graduation, and she got her little diploma.”
But she was a different little girl in other ways, said Jackson. At the beginning when Jaya was first diagnosed, she battled severe anxiety when faced with trips to the doctor’s office or hospital for tests. She would often get sick in the car on the way.
When she started receiving treatment at Wolfson Children’s Hospital, however, that began to change. An interpreter was always on-hand to assist her hearing-impaired parents so they could understand what was happening at all times. Doctors and other hospital staff got down to Jaya’s eye level and also explained things in a way she could understand. And her favorite doll, Miss Minnie, was invited to accompany her throughout every appointment, procedure, and even during her brain surgery and recovery.
“Being able to wake up in the recovery room with Miss Minnie by her side was amazing,” said Jackson. “Jaya doesn’t have a problem with anxiety anymore.”
Chances are, she won’t have a problem with another brain tumor either. But just in case, Jaya will be followed closely with MRIs at Wolfson Children’s Hospital every six months the first year, and every year after that until the five-year mark. The likelihood of her tumor coming back is very small.
“Our Neuroscience Institute includes a Neuro-Oncology Center that’s a partnership between Wolfson Children’s Hospital, the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville, and Nemours Children’s Specialty Care, Jacksonville,” said Dr. Aldana. “Our primary goal is to treat every child with an individualized plan of care, which is why our entire multidisciplinary team meets every week to discuss cases like Jaya’s to decide the best form of treatment. That’s a big advantage! Not to mention all of the other benefits that children get when they come to a dedicated, full-service children’s hospital like Wolfson.”
U.S. News & World Report has ranked Wolfson Children’s Hospital among the 50 Best Children’s Hospitals in the country for neurology and neurosurgery the last two years in a row.