Brian Wathen, an ongoing patient success story for Children's Hospital

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By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 9:36 PM

Brian Wathen's laugh is a delight. When the 9-year-old finds something funny - and he finds lots of things funny - he closes his eyes, bends slightly at the waist, dimples his cheeks and utters a silent guffaw. It's a laugh that comes from deep inside.

"Is that a wig?" nurse practitioner Debbie Lafond asks, motioning toward his head.

Brian laughs and raises a hand to his brown bowl of hair and gives it a tug. Not a wig.

"You want me to put some highlights in that?" jokes Debbie.

A full head of hair is a milestone for Brian, whom I met a year ago when he spent his eighth birthday at Children's Hospital while receiving the 20th of 27 chemotherapy treatments. It was part of a triple-tiered approach - surgery, radiation and chemo - to treat medulloblastoma, a tumor growing on Brian's brain stem.

"He's really sort of past the first critical 18 months," says neurologist Roger Packer, counting from when the diagnosis was made. "The longer we go, the better the likelihood you'll never have to deal with this again."

Brian comes to Children's from La Plata every three months for an MRI, just in case the cancer comes back. (Says Brian's father, Thomas: "It's always in the back of your mind, when he says 'I have a headache.' ") Some young patients need to be sedated for their scans, but Brian doesn't flinch at the prospect of 90 minutes in a metal tube. He falls asleep or listens to his music, a mix that ranges from AC/DC to country.

I can't help thinking that it's sad when a child becomes comfortable with a hospital ward - it bespeaks a horrible familiarity - but the affection that Brian and the people at Children's feel for each other is so real and so deep that it makes me almost jealous. How many of us will make connections forged over saving a person's life or having our life saved?

"The MRI looks great," Dr. Packer says. "Do you want to see?"

Brian sidles up to the neurologist. A cross section of skull glows on a computer monitor in the consultation room. Says Dr. Packer: "Where the tumor was, what you see is. . . . you don't see anything. You see just good old brain."

The treatment's side effects are some of the things the doctors and nurses look for on these visits. They ask Brian to walk. They have him touch his nose with the tip of his finger. Debbie dons a hand puppet, has Brian choose one and then has him match her arm movements.

The radiation has damaged Brian's hearing, so he's been fitted for a hearing aid. ("He thinks it's cool," says his mom, Jill. "Now he has a Bluetooth.") Debbie reminds Jill to keep an eye out for moles in the radiation field and asks whether Brian experiences fatigue.

No, Jill says. The opposite, in fact. "No napping, no 7 o'clock bedtime. He can just go and go."

Then Jill remembers something she's been meaning to ask: She should probably make an appointment for Brian with a regular pediatrician, right? He hasn't been to one in two years.

A trip to the pediatrician, a full head of hair, a contagious laugh - it's time for Brian to start being a regular kid again.

It all adds up

A Vienna couple write that they've been collecting loose change for years in a glass water cooler bottle. They took it to a nearby bank, and when the bank learned whom the money was for, it waived the 10 percent fee for using its change-counting machine. The grand total: $395.26 for Children's Hospital.

"Tonight we dropped a check in the mail to The Post for that amount," they wrote. "Change is good!"

Indeed it is. You may not have several hundred dollars in nickels, dimes and quarters taking up space in your house, but perhaps it's cluttering up your bank account. I can help. To make your tax-deductible donation, send a check or money order (payable to "Children's Hospital") to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390. To donate online with a credit card, go to washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital or call 301-565-8501.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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