After brain tumor surgery, Haitian child learns to walk again


Deep inside 10-year-old Caleb’s brain, an insidious brain tumor grew and grew, pressing down on his brain stem and causing fluid to build inside the brain’s cavities, until Caleb could no longer walk, run or play. From dawn to dusk, Caleb sat in the corner of his family’s Haitian home, plagued by constant headaches and unable to walk independently. By the time David Sandberg, M.D., and his team arrived in Haiti, Caleb had not walked for nearly a year.

For the past three years, Dr. Sandberg, who is director of pediatric neurosurgery at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute at the Texas Medical Center and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, has been leading medical mission trips of clinical and physician volunteers from Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital and McGovern Medical School to help the children of Haiti with unmet neurosurgical needs.

When he first saw Caleb, Dr. Sandberg knew the limited resources Haiti had and knew he needed help beyond what Haiti could provide. He knew he had to find a way to get Caleb to the United States.

“Caleb’s tumor had reached a critical point,” Dr. Sandberg said in an April article in TMC Pulse. “Short of us going to Haiti and finding Caleb, he would have eventually slipped into a coma and died.”

It would be no small task to care for Caleb in the U.S. He needed more tests and imaging, hours of brain surgery, a long stay in the intensive care unit and rehabilitation, not to mention visas, passports, plane tickets and a place for Caleb and his mother to stay in Houston.

But Susie Distefano, Senior Vice President and CEO of Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, had two words for Dr. Sandberg: Bring him.

“That was it,” Dr. Sandberg said. “Most hospitals would’ve turned him away.”

Caleb’s story touched hearts. Dick Bassett, a philanthropist and friend of Dr. Sandberg’s who had also traveled to Haiti on the mission trip, paid for Caleb’s travel costs and some of his surgery bills; the hospital covered the rest. Tacarra Logan, Dr. Sandberg’s administrative assistant, helped mobilize Houston’s Haitian community to welcome the boy and his mother and to open their homes. The outpouring of support for Caleb was immense, long before Caleb even reached American soil.

Once he arrived, Dr. Sandberg wasted no time getting Caleb into the operating room where he meticulously removed all traces of the tumor from Caleb’s brain.

While the surgery was successful, there was no guarantee Caleb would be able to walk again. Each day, Dr. Sandberg visited him in his room and encouraged him to move. Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital music therapist Jennifer Townsend banged a drum to persuade him to march to the beat. Physical and occupational therapists cheered Caleb on as they assisted him with swinging his arms and shuffling his feet.

Within a week of his surgery, Caleb was taking steps on his own. It was the first time he’d walked in 10 long months.

As Caleb grew stronger and prepared to leave for rehabilitation at Shriners Hospitals for Children-Houston, the staff at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital remained enthralled with his success. Linda Mobley, the operating room clinical coordinator at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital who was also on the initial trip to Haiti when the team met Caleb, brought her grandchildren to his hospital room to deliver some much needed warm winter clothing. The chefs in the hospital’s Food and Nutrition Services department surprised Caleb and his mom with a specially created Haitian feast – sweet plantain porridge and savory brown stew chicken – to help him feel more at home.

As Caleb continues to show progress every day, his mother, Bernita, says she’s overcome with gratitude for the kindness they had received.

“I’m so thankful for Dr. Sandberg, Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, Shriners Hospital, the Haitian community, our church and everyone else who has helped us through this experience,” she told TMC Pulse. “My biggest hope is that Caleb can return to school and play with his brothers and sisters again.”

Read more about Caleb’s story.


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Tashika Varma