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Apodaca: Serendipity saves a young life

January 28, 2012|By Patrice Apodaca

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.

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"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.

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