The power of imagination

Spring 2016

Mckenna Lumley, 11, and her family have dealt with not one, but two health obstacles – a brain tumour at the age of four, and a scoliosis diagnosis at the age of eight.

In her most recent visit to Children’s Hospital, London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), Mckenna imagined that she transported to a fantasy world. As she entered the MRI machine, she envisioned an ice cream mountain made of giant scoops of flavours. “I took a bite out of it when I reached the top,” says Mckenna with a smile, demonstrating she is accustomed to keeping positive during trying times.

In January 2010, Mckenna began exhibiting flu-like symptoms. But her parents Karen and Brett weren’t convinced of the diagnosis of a seasonal flu. The symptoms were persistent for three weeks and no one else in the family was catching the illness. Pain in Mckenna’s neck was intensifying, and she was frequently dizzy.

Karen and Brett took Mckenna to their local hospital in Windsor for an MRI. When the phone rang later the same day, they knew it was serious.

“The doctor began asking me questions. I said, ‘Look, we were just in for an MRI and you’re already calling me. I need to know what’s wrong,’” Karen recalls. “She told me that Mckenna had a brain tumour and needed surgery immediately.”

Two life-saving procedures

The same day, an ambulance was waiting at the Windsor hospital to transport Mckenna to Children’s Hospital, LHSC, which specializes in paediatric brain surgery. Dr. Adrianna Ranger, Mckenna’s neurosurgeon, explained it could not be confirmed if the tumour was aggressive until surgery was complete.

“It ended up being a pilocytic astrocytoma,” Mckenna declares, pronouncing the name of the tumour perfectly.

“Pilocytic astrocytoma is a benign tumour located at the back of the head in the cerebellum, occurring commonly in children under 20 years of age,” says Dr. Ranger. “They are often curable with surgery if located in an accessible part of the brain.”

Mckenna underwent 21 hours of surgery in two separate procedures to remove the full mass and remained in hospital for 34 days. Mckenna only remembers fragments of this time in her life. As Karen expresses the shock of what that time felt like as a parent, Mckenna provides comic relief for what was a very scary experience for the family.

“I remember the pizza, the ice cream… the chocolate milk!” she exclaims, referring to the food she had at the hospital after surgery.

Mckenna underwent physiotherapy and occupational therapy during her stay at Children’s Hospital to help her with fine and gross motor activities. Mckenna’s health-care team was pleased with her progress and was confident she had made a full recovery.

Mckenna returned to Children’s Hospital every three months for MRIs to monitor whether the tumour was growing back. Mckenna now only returns for follow up appointments on a yearly basis.

Over the next three years, Mckenna flourished with a passion for ballet dancing and the music of Taylor Swift. However, she began experiencing pain in her legs and feet in 2013, so Karen and Brett took her to their family physician who suspected Mckenna might have scoliosis.

She was referred to Dr. Timothy Carey, a paediatric orthopaedic surgeon in LHSC’s scoliosis clinic. The clinic at LHSC sees children with spinal deformities from the entire southwestern Ontario region. When Dr. Carey showed the X-ray to Mckenna, Brett and Karen, they couldn’t believe their eyes.

“I kept repeating – ‘No, Mckenna Lumley’s X-ray. This is not Mckenna Lumley’s X-ray,’” says Karen. “Her spine was shaped like an ‘S’. We were shocked.”

Treatment for scoliosis

Due to the 35 degree magnitude of the curve and Mckenna’s age, she would require a brace and regular X-rays to track progression of the curve.

“Mckenna is on the younger side of the patients we usually see with scoliosis,” says Dr. Carey. “The concern is the risk of curve progression increases when the onset is at an early age, due to the amount of spinal growth remaining.”

Bracing can be successful in stopping the progression of the curve while scoliosis patients go through growth spurts, preventing the need for surgery in the future. The thought of Mckenna wearing a brace for 20 hours each day was upsetting for the family. But when Mckenna saw that her brace was adorned with butterflies, she knew she could get used to wearing it.

“At first, she only kept it on for 10 minutes,” says Karen. “They only expected her to put it on for five minutes to try it. But when you’re the parent, at that moment you know your kid has to work up to wearing it for 20 hours every day. At first I was devastated. But it was amazing how fast she adapted to wearing it.”

Mckenna wears her brace during school and everyday activities, and also sleeps with it on. Mckenna has used the brace to convince kids at school that she has super human strength.

“One time a boy at school called me weak,” says Mckenna. “I knocked on my brace and said to him – ‘I’m not weak – I’m made of steel!’”

It appears that bracing has helped to prevent the need for at least one spinal surgery.

“The curve in the bottom of her spine has straightened out a bit,” says Karen. “It has progressed slightly on the top. We’re hoping that if surgery is needed in the future, there is the possibility that it will only be needed on the top of her spine.”

Sharing their story to empower others

The family is grateful for the service they have received at Children’s Hospital.

“When Mckenna had her brain surgeries, we knew that Children’s Hospital was going to be a part of our lives for a long time,” says Karen. “It isn’t a place where Mckenna is scared to go. Dr. Ranger and Dr. Carey must be so busy, but every time we’re there, they make us feel like we’re the only people they have to see.”

Mckenna is no stranger to accepting new challenges with positivity and humour. Perhaps what is most inspiring about Mckenna and her family is how, despite their difficulties, they count themselves lucky.

“We are fortunate. There are families who are far worse off,” says Karen. “We have a happy ending right now, and we have to use that strength to help the people who can’t talk about what they’re going through.”

Mckenna has been happy to share her advice with kids who frequently visit the hospital.

“I tell them that the hospital is filled with imaginary portals,” says Mckenna. “All you need to do is find your imaginary portal, go to your imaginary land when you’re afraid, and everything will be okay!”

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Mckenna with her parents, Karen and Brett, and her brother Blake.
Mckenna sees Dr. Timothy Carey at LHSC's regional scoliosis clinic.