Brain surgery at Children's Hospital saves teen from 'catastrophic' tumor

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 7:28 PM

On this page are two MRIs taken last year of Dennisse Portero's skull. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to tell them apart, though it took two brain surgeons to transform Dennisse, then 17, from "before" to "after."

About three years ago, the Mount Airy teen started losing the hearing in her left ear. It wasn't until two years later that a routine eye exam revealed pressure at the back of the eye. The cause? Dennisse had an acoustic neuroma, a tumor growing on the nerve that connects the ear to the brain.

"I had an emergency MRI," Dennisse said. "They called up the next day and said, 'Yes there's definitely something there, and we're going to transfer you to Children's Hospital.' "

"Our lives changed in two days," said Dennisse's mom, Ximena.

The tumor was benign, but the diabolical thing about it was that it was pressing against Dennisse's brain stem.

"This was very, very dangerous," said Dr. Suresh Magge, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children's National Medical Center. "If it had continued like this, it could have been really catastrophic for her."

Dr. Magge enlisted the help of Dr. Donald Wright, a Northern Virginia neurosurgeon who specializes in tumors of this sort. Together the two of them removed the growth from inside Dennisse's skull. It was the size of a lemon. The operation took 17 hours.

"There are a lot of important structures and nerves in the area," Dr. Magge said. "It's just a very slow process to get it out."

The surgeons had to peel the tumor from the facial nerve, had to make sure to leave the cerebellum intact, had to be certain the tumor's removal wouldn't cause things to shift inside her skull.

Denise tolerated the surgery well. She'll never recover the hearing in that ear and she's lost some strength on the left side of her face, but that's gradually coming back. Whether it will return completely is hard to say.

Dennisse said a lot of people helped her get through her ordeal: "Dr. Magge, Dr. Wright, my Aunt Myrian, my Uncle Manolo and my parents," she said. The family her mother does housekeeping for, the Debs, helped, too.

People have noticed a change in Dennisse. The experience made her more mature, she said, forced on her a grown-up responsibility. After pondering other careers, she's thinking now of becoming a pediatric nurse.

Helping others

The Porteros are not the sort of family that has $250,000 lying around - the cost of the marathon surgery, even after Dr. Magge waived his fees. Dennisse's mom is a housekeeper. Her dad, Fernando, is a sheet metal worker.

The only things covered by the insurance the family had at the time were doctor's visits. The insurance the Porteros have now requires the family to pay 50 percent of procedures like the one Dennisse had.

"Even 50 percent of $250,000 is a lot," Dennisse said. "Dr. Magee was like, 'Don't worry about the money. . . . The first thing you should do is worry about the surgery.' "

Your generosity can help patients such as Dennisse. To make a 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 or call 301-565-8501.

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