Defying the Odds
“Things could have very easily turned out differently with a less cohesive and responsive team.”
— Ari, Theo’s father
It was Theo’s first time seeing snow. His father, Ari, expected the normally peppy 4-year-old to be delighted during the clear day of Tahoe sledding. Instead, Theo was miserable.
“I thought to myself, ‘This just isn’t our kid,’” Ari recalls.
Back at home, Theo was rushed to UCSF Children’s Hospital Oakland, exhausted and now struggling to breathe. An X-ray revealed the shocking reason: A large mass of tumor cells in Theo’s chest was growing rapidly and putting dangerous pressure on his heart and lungs. What followed was an intense race against the clock to save Theo’s life.
Though further tests were needed to confirm the diagnosis, our renowned oncology team – the best in the Bay Area – knew that based on Theo’s age and symptoms, leukemia was the most likely culprit. With no time to lose, the team took an almost unprecedented action: immediately starting chemotherapy in the emergency room to shrink the tumor.
But over the next 24 hours, Theo’s breathing became increasingly labored. A team of 14 doctors from eight different specialties, six nurses, and additional support staff met to determine next steps. They decided to place Theo on a heart and lung bypass machine called ECMO – a major undertaking employed only in dire circumstances – to allow his heart to heal while he continued critical chemotherapy. Within the hour, Theo was in the operating room.
“The incredibly bold decision to put Theo on ECMO despite the risks, and the subsequent skill to get the job done safely and with the necessary speed, tell a story of the remarkable team at this hospital,” Ari says.
With Theo’s condition stabilized and his diagnosis confirmed as T-cell leukemia, the oncology team shifted its focus to his long-term treatment, which would include multiple hospital stays and challenging rounds of chemotherapy.
But Theo has positive memories too, like when a music therapist brought him an electric piano so he could practice for the first time in weeks. Using a special device, the therapist recorded his family’s heartbeats as background percussion, and together they composed an original song about hospital food called “Downtown Hash Browns.”
A little over three months after their ordeal began, Ari came home to fantastic news. “When I opened the front door, Theo ran to me and said, ‘Dad, we have a surprise for you. The tumor is gone,’” Ari recalls. “It’s not something you ever imagine hearing from your preschool kid. But it was glorious.”
Today, 6-year-old Theo is in full remission. He loves to play piano, ride his bike, and swim, and he recently took up baseball. Ari still looks back on the harrowing first 48 hours of Theo’s treatment with awe and gratitude.
“Things could have very easily turned out differently with a less cohesive and responsive team,” Ari says. “We think about medicine as science, and science determines action. In this case, it felt like as much art as science.”