Tammie Souza thrives on extreme situations. Blizzards, hurricanes and heat waves bring out the best in her. That passion—and more than a little expertise—landed her at NBC10 as First Alert Weather’s chief meteorologist in early 2017. She migrated to Philadelphia from Chicago while her husband Greg Hendricks and their 8-year-old son, Caleb, stayed behind to finish the school year.
But Tammie couldn’t have forecast the medical tornado that formed in Caleb’s head. There she was on July 24, 2017, in full parental panic, running next to her son’s gurney as he was whisked away for emergency brain surgery at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. Three days earlier, an emergency MRI revealed a pilocytic astrocytoma tumor growing in Caleb’s brain. It was the size of an orange, but it was fully encapsulated—a good thing.
Pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Amanda Saratsis believed she could remove the entire tumor. Caleb was admitted to Lurie, and the operation was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on Monday morning. But on Sunday, Caleb’s condition deteriorated. The pain intensified and flashed through his head every few minutes. “It felt like a needle, a knife and a bullet going through my brain,” Caleb recalls. “All I could do was cry and scream.”
He did that for nine hours, through Sunday night and into Monday morning. Tammie and Greg sought help from the hospital’s staff, but they were told that Caleb was maxed out on his pain medication. Tammie’s eyes well with tears as she remembers that night. “To watch your son be in that much pain and not be able to help him—I couldn’t have imagined anything so terrible,” says Souza, who lives in Lower Merion Township. “And then it got worse.”
In the wee hours of Monday morning, Caleb let out a primal scream then collapsed in his bed. Monitors beeped and flashed. A nurse ran into the room and pushed a big button on the wall to summon hospital personnel. Greg was already there, administering sternal rubs and checking Caleb’s pupils. A former paramedic, Greg hovered over his son’s body. “Caleb was 100 percent unresponsive,” he says. “His eyes were blown and his body was totally limp. I thought he was coding. I worked on my son while one nurse pushed meds and another prepared his other arm for more meds. He slowly started to respond and they told me to step away. When I looked up, it seemed like there were 30 doctors and nurses in the room.”
They pulled Caleb’s bed from the wall and rushed him down the hall. Tammie and Greg met Saratsis near the operating room. She’d been called at home, awoken with the news that Caleb’s status deteriorated. “I told them to open an OR and I’d be there in 10 minutes,” she says. “The tumor grew furiously, and we had to drain the fluid in the cavity to relieve the pressure.”
Tammie and Greg understood the procedure and knew Caleb was in good hands. But when a doctor says, “We have to drill a hole in your son’s skull,” that’s all you really hear. After Caleb had been ushered into the OR, Greg went into a bathroom and vomited. Tammie sat on a bench, quiet and alone.
Tammie had been here before. When she was 7, her 5-year-old sister, Amy, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, killing her within three months. Caleb’s tumor was different than Amy’s. It was rare but treatable—Tammie knew that. But in that moment, sitting at the hospital, the medicine didn’t matter. Her only child had just been near death and now a team of doctors held his life in their hands. Tammie curled into a ball, closed her eyes and prayed.
“Some of my friends don’t believe what happened,” says Caleb today. “I tell them I had a brain tumor, and they say, ‘Yeah right.’ Then I show them the scar.”
Caleb’s benign tumor was successfully removed. “When I woke up from the surgery, the pain was gone,” he says. “Life is back to normal.”
Still, for Tammie and Greg, the ordeal also left scars. Devout Christians, they thank God for saving their son’s life. They’re also grateful to the medical personnel who treated Caleb. But one question remains: How did the tumor get so big without being detected?
The story of Caleb’s tumor starts in March 2017, when he had a headache so severe that he had to go home from school. The headaches continued, accompanied by vomiting and stomachaches. “It was not a 911 situation,” Greg recalls.
Kids come down with all kinds of ailments. Plus, Caleb has allergies, which often cause problems. But in the coming weeks, Caleb exhibited other symptoms, including fatigue, photophobia, and vision problems, loss of balance and coordination. All are classic signs of neurological issues. “The pediatrician gave him neurological checks, and Caleb passed,” Greg says. “The headaches came and went, and Caleb never had one in front of the doctor.”
The pediatrician ordered blood work to test for Lyme and other diseases. Tammie requested an MRI, wondering if Caleb had a concussion or some other head trauma. “I had a very strong feeling that Caleb needed an MRI of his brain,” says Tammie. “I knew something was wrong.”
The doctor wanted to see the blood test results before he ordered an MRI. He told Greg to bring Caleb back to his office in two weeks to review the blood work. Days later, Caleb’s condition worsened. While helping him with homework, Greg realized that his son’s handwriting was almost illegible and his speech was garbled. Aphasia and agraphia are the clinical terms for such symptoms. Greg knew something was very wrong, and the next morning, he rushed Caleb to the pediatrician, who ordered an emergency MRI. An ER doctor told Greg the news. “The tumor was huge,” says Greg. “I fell to my knees. I couldn’t believe that was my kid’s brain.”
An ambulance transported Caleb to Lurie Children’s Hospital, where he was put into Saratsis’ care and stabilized. Greg called Tammie, who was in Philadelphia preparing the evening’s weather forecast. Her NBC10 colleagues helped her get a flight to Chicago. Unfortunately, it was delayed by bad weather. A summer storm set in and so did Tammy’s guilt. “I should’ve pushed for an MRI early on and kept pushing until we got it,” she says.
As big and scary as brain tumors are, they can also be subtle. Kids grow as the tumors grow, and without realizing it, a child can compensate for a tumor’s symptoms. “They have amazingly compliant central nervous symptoms that tolerate even some large lesions,” says Saratsis. “Unlike adults and their fully formed brains, kids can tolerate wide fluctuations in intracranial pressure.”
Why order an MRI? Saratsis cites symptoms like weakness, numbness, abnormal eye or face movement, changes in speech or balance, and headaches. “In many cases, it’s only when it reaches a critical mass that kids get really sick really fast,” she says. “Until then, a lot of pediatricians and parents miss the signs.”
Greg and Tammie didn’t miss those signs; they made repeated visits to Caleb’s pediatrician. Still, Caleb’s story is not uncommon. “We often have children referred to us with the same situation,” Saratsis says. “They spend months being worked up for symptoms that could be anything. They get blood work or other scans, but not one that’s an MRI of the brain. The truth is that a pediatrician sees all kinds of problems, the vast majority of which are not brain tumors.”
Some, however, are tumors—or concussions or other head trauma. Tammie and Greg want parents to know those warning signs. “If you see these symptoms, you need to know what’s going on in your kid’s head,” says Greg.
For Tammie, having more information is always better. “A simple MRI can save lives,” she says. “You wouldn’t think a headache could turn out to be a brain tumor. But sometimes, it is.”