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Doctors ponder medical 'miracles'

/ Source: The Associated Press

If you ask why little Brandon Connor’s tumor suddenly disappeared on the eve of his surgery, his doctors will try their best to explain.

Perhaps a cellular switch clicked on, or maybe it was a faulty diagnosis. But ask Brandon’s mother and she calls it a miracle.

Many doctors don’t use the “m” word, a concept that carries mystic or religious overtones. An unexpected recovery is an unusual wrinkle in their scientific beliefs, but it does happen.

“You get surprises because diseases have their own personality, and every once in a while, a disease that’s usually bad behaves in a more indolent fashion,” said Dr. David Steinberg, an oncologist at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Mass.

No clear-cut explanation

For more than a decade during the Christmas season, Steinberg highlighted “miracle cases” at the clinic, presenting tales of remarkable recoveries to lift the spirits of doctors and nurses.

There are different reasons some patients mysteriously get better. Sometimes, it has to do with the biology of the disease. Other times, a patient may belong to the lucky 1 percent of the population who respond to treatment.

Someone may also live longer than expected because of a misdiagnosis that predicted a shorter life. And then there are recoveries that have no clear-cut explanation: like the case of 2-year-old Brandon Connor of suburban Atlanta, or Tim Kaczmarek of Pennsylvania whose dying heart repaired itself, or Stacey Perrotta of New York who survived a rare cancer that produced a softball-sized tumor.

In Brandon’s case, doctors discovered a strange lump growing near his spine while he was still inside his mother’s womb. Five weeks after he was born, the Connors received bad news: Brandon had neuroblastoma, one of the deadliest forms of childhood cancers.

Surgery was risky since it could result in paralysis. So doctors decided just to monitor the marble-sized tumor, since sometimes such growths spontaneously disappear in babies before they turn 1.

But Brandon kept growing, and the tumor didn’t go away. Finally, after he turned 2, Kristin and Mike Connor decided to take action.

The couple went to the University of California at San Francisco where a neurosurgeon agreed to operate. But on the eve of the surgery last month, the tumor all but vanished. A scan showed no sign of the mass, only fatty tissue.

“It was a miracle,” said Kristin Connor, who was stunned to hear the good news. “It was surreal to us that this could have possibly happened.”

Doctors believed Brandon’s tumor may have been a neuroblastoma that committed cellular suicide — an action some cancer treatments try to produce. But because a biopsy was never done, it was also possible that the lump was another type of tumor that regressed, said Dr. Katherine Matthay, a pediatric oncologist at the university.

Since leaving the hospital, Brandon has been a bundle of energy, constantly jamming on his keyboard and playing with his 5-year-old brother Ryan, his mother said.

On a recent shopping trip to the mall, Brandon asked Santa Claus for a Lilo & Stitch doll. His mom says he can look forward to a train set and building blocks, too.

The Connors plan a quiet Christmas Day at home, thankful that the dark cloud of Brandon’s illness is gone. Then, they’ll fly to Missouri to visit relatives who haven’t seen Brandon in months.

Sometimes Kristin Connor feels survivor’s guilt about their good fortune while so many other children are suffering. She has raised $150,000 for research into rare childhood cancers.

“We were given a miracle to help these other children,” she says.

A second chance

For Tim Kaczmarek, a 48-year-old father from Natrona Heights, Pa., hearing his own heartbeat is living proof of his second chance at life.

The history teacher and basketball coach collapsed inside a Wal-Mart store this summer after a massive heart attack that nearly killed him. After emergency quadruple bypass surgery at a local hospital, he was transferred to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center where doctors reopened his chest and implanted a mechanical pump.

The device immediately took over his heart’s job of pumping blood through the body, letting his own organ rest. Doctors fully expected Kaczmarek to stay on the pump long enough to get a heart transplant.

There have been cases of heart patients who were weaned off the pump, but usually those had only a brief recent history of heart failure. Kaczmarek was an unlikely candidate for such a recovery because he had suffered his first heart attack almost 10 years earlier.

But after a month and a half on the pump, doctors saw such improvement in his heart function that they unhooked Kaczmarek from the machine.

“It’s relatively unusual to see a patient like him recover from a major heart attack,” said Dr. Robert Kormos, who runs the artificial heart program at Pittsburgh. “It was a pleasant surprise to find that he had enough cardiac reserve to be able to heal and have a good, functioning heart.”

Pump-free since July, Kaczmarek is recuperating at home in hopes of returning to teaching next year and ultimately, coaching again. He feels lucky to have a second chance at spending the holidays with his wife and two daughters, ages 20 and 22.

“It’s a miracle,” he said. “You can’t believe something like this happens to a person and you’re still here to talk about it.”

Power of a positive attitude

Two years ago, Stacey Perrotta discovered a mysterious lump in her stomach. Sometimes it stuck out like a golf ball. It never hurt or bothered her, and when she pushed it, she could hear it pop back in.

For four months, she tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away. Finally, a week before a routine doctor’s checkup, she told her mother.

Stacey was referred to the Golisano Children’s Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center where a scan revealed a large tumor. Not knowing if it was cancerous, surgeons removed the softball-sized mass.

The diagnosis was devastating: Stacey had desmoplastic small round cell tumor, a rare cancer normally found in teenage boys. Only 20 percent with the disease survive.

Doctors in Rochester had never treated anyone with this cancer before. They pored through the medical literature and consulted other cancer specialists. Then they decided on a course of treatment that included extra high doses of chemotherapy followed by radiation.

“When I started looking at how kids with this disease did, I thought, ’Oh boy. This is not good. This is going to be tough,”’ said Dr. David Korones, a pediatric oncologist.

Doctors credit Stacey’s positive attitude as aiding in her recovery.

People have a natural capacity to heal, said Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

“Many times, we, as physicians, are surprised about how well a patient will do,” said Benson, who was not one of Stacey’s doctors. “I believe that medicine has to leave the door open for belief and self-care to add to the awesome contribution to healing that drugs and surgery can do.”

During her six months of treatment, Stacey felt nauseous and feverish and needed several blood transfusions because of her dangerously low blood count. Her last round of chemo was halted because she was too sick.

Through it all, she managed to joke about losing her hair.

“I never really thought of dying,” said Stacey, now 17. “I didn’t feel like it was my time to die.”

Yet, doctors said that if she had put off dealing with the growth any longer, the cancer would have spread to other organs.

Two years later, Stacey is still cancer-free. Beating the disease forced her to grow up fast. She has simple wants for Christmas, just a new cell phone to replace the one that broke and a new winter coat. The first Christmas after her surgery, she was hooked to an IV pole.

Stacey was named one of Children’s Hospital’s five “Miracle Kids” of 2003. Next year, she will graduate from high school and pursue a nursing career.

“I think about where I am now compared to where I was then and it’s a good feeling,” she said. “I’ve come a long way.”