When Tonya Freeman’s 10-year-old daughter, Samantha Oxendine, started complaining of headaches and poor vision in school last fall, she assumed that the girl must need glasses.
“I took her to see Dr. Covington for an eye exam, and he found papilledema,” said Freeman.
Papilledema is optic disk swelling caused by intracranial pressure.
“He immediately referred her to a neurologist in Charlotte,” said Freeman.
The girl had an MRI, and the images showed what no mother wants to imagine — a mass was growing on her brain.
“From there she went straight to UNC Chapel Hill Hospital,” said Freeman. “She had hydrocephaly; fluid building up around her brain. The tumor was causing improper drainage of her spinal fluid.”
Freeman, a nurse at FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital in Rockingham, understood the seriousness of the situation her daughter was facing.
“I knew when they told me what this was just how bad this is,” said Freeman. “It’s killing me inside.”
Doctors immediately put in a shunt to drain the fluid from her daughter’s brain. In March, when the girl was fit for surgery, she underwent an operation to remove the tumor.
“Because of the size of the growth, only half could be removed then,” said Freeman. “She then contracted meningitis.”
The young girl began to face mounting health problems, to the dismay of her mother.
“She had no more veins to stick in her arms,” said Freeman. “Three PICC lines were put into her arms and they all failed.”
A PICC line is a peripherally inserted central catheter. It is long, slender tube that is inserted into a peripheral vein, typically in the upper arm, and advanced until the catheter tip stops in a large vein in the chest near the heart.
“When they did ultrasounds on her arms to find out why they couldn’t maintain access to her veins, they discovered blood clots,” said Freeman.
Yet another surgery was required, and doctors put a PowerPort into her chest to allow for direct catheter access to her bloodstream. Then, another shunt was inserted into her head to reduce the amount of fluid around her brain.
Because a portion of the tumor was sitting on her pituitary gland in the brain, the girl developed diabetes incipidus when it was removed. When the pituitary fails to release an antidiuretic hormone into the bloodstream, excessive thirst and excessive urination follow. When compensation is not possible, dehydration sets in quickly, followed by low blood pressure and shock.
On top of the other health problems the child accumulated, she also developed intractable vomiting. Unable to eat most foods, she spontaneously vomits and is unresponsive to medications.
“She’s now blind in one eye, and there is still half a tumor remaining on her brain,” said Freeman. “Doctors fear that removing the other half of the tumor surgically will cause her to be completely blind.”
Physicians have given Freeman one ray of hope for her daughter’s health: a proton radiation treatment that is only available in a few states in the U.S.
“They said that, because she’s so young, traditional radiation treatment to her brain will damage her mental development,” said Freeman. “The only option is to do this particular type of treatment, which will focus only on the tumor and leave her brain undamaged. Chemotherapy has also been ruled out as an option for her.”
The closest facility offering this type of treatment is at the University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute. Freeman plans to pack up her daughter and 14-year-old son in June and make the trip South.
“She doesn’t really understand how bad this is, and she’s handling everything pretty well,” said Freeman. “I’m just trying to keep it together. My nerves are shot.”
The treatments in Florida will be every day, for five or six weeks.
To help cover the costs of her time in Florida, along with the mounting medical bills, Freeman’s family and friends have organized a fundraiser.
“We’ve had cousins, friends and other family members working to help support this fundraiser,” said Tonya’s sister, Teresa Freeman, of Hamlet. “Everyone, especially her boyfriend, has been great about trying to help her through this and help her take care of her son while all this is going on with Samantha.”
A pancake breakfast will be held on Saturday, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., at Highway 55 Burgers Shakes & Fries (formerly Andy’s Burgers Shakes & Fries), 722 E. U.S. Highway 74, in Rockingham. Breakfast plates will be $6.
— Staff Writer Kelli Easterling can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 18, or by email at email@example.com