The lump sticking out of her neck didn’t stop 8-year-old Brianna Alexe from spending hours on the tennis court or in the classroom, but it worried her mother.
In February, doctors at Holtz Children’s Hospital at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial confirmed her worst fears: the tennis-ball-sized bulge was a tumor.
Worse than its size, doctors told 42-year-old Mihaela Bozdog that the mass was wrapped around her little girl’s carotid artery — one of the main blood vessels supplying the brain with oxygenated blood. If it kept growing, there was a chance her daughter could have a stroke.
Dr. Ramzi Younis, the UHealth ear, nose and throat specialist who led the surgery to remove the tumor, told reporters Wednesday afternoon that Brianna’s paraganglioma tumor is most often found in middle-aged people. Even then, he said, it only shows up in every two out of 100,000 people. Younis said Brianna is the youngest patient he’s ever heard of with this type of tumor.
Surgery was going to be complicated. Scans showed the lump was resting on a tangled nest of important nerves and muscles. One wrong move and surgeons could hurt her vocal cords, or the nerves reaching her diaphragm and shoulder.
As part of the planning, Dr. Eric Peterson, a UHealth neurosurgeon, inflated a little balloon inside Brianna’s carotid artery and closed it off completely. He wanted to see how her body would react if one of her brain’s four main blood vessels was cut off.
“You don't need all of them,” Peterson said. The trick is finding which of the arteries people need to survive, he said, because it varies. Once Peterson figured out Brianna would survive without her carotid artery, he sealed off all the blood vessels heading to the tumor with a mix of glue and particles.
Then came the surgery.
“I don't know how I survived those eight hours, to tell you the truth,” Bozdog said. “I want to forget that. I want to forget Feb. 24. I just want to remember April 24. That's her birthday.”
Younis said the procedure had “lots of scary moments.” Surgeons found the tumor had started to grow into the artery, and they had to cut it open to get every part of the lump. The spray of blood was horrifying, he said, but Brianna pulled through. When she awakened, she was surrounded by her doctors and parents.
Weeks later, the grinning 8-year-old is feeling “wonderful.” The only mark left from the life-threatening surgery is her hushed tones. One of her vocal chords hasn’t moved since the surgery, and doctors don’t know if it’s permanent. She was back in school two weeks after the procedure, and soon she’ll be back on the tennis courts.
UHealth staff arranged a surprise for Brianna on Wednesday to honor her love of the sport. Across from where she sat, legs dangling off her chair, a TV screen played a video clip from her idol, Romanian tennis player Simona Halep.
“You have been very brave,” Halep said. “Let that courage flow into other parts of your life and you can accomplish anything.”
As the fifth-ranked tennis star in the world blew her a kiss on camera, tears poured down Brianna’s face. “I’m so happy,” she said, sniffling.