When Hayden Wheatley was 19 months old, her parents, Nicole and Eric, noticed she was having balance issues and vomiting spells. Local clinic doctors didn’t find anything wrong, but the Wheatleys had a feeling something wasn’t right and took Hayden to a local emergency department.
A CT scan revealed fluid on Hayden’s brain, so she was taken by ambulance to University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Early the next morning, Nicole and Eric were told a mass was discovered on Hayden’s brain stem. The mass was removable, but it was in a dangerous location.
“They told us that surgery wasn’t an option, it was absolutely necessary,” says Nicole. “If we didn’t do the surgery, she just wouldn’t wake up one morning.”
Hayden’s surgery was a success. The team was able to remove the entire tumor, and the Wheatleys assumed the worst was behind them. That night, however, Hayden was restless and had an extremely high heart rate.
“The neurosurgeons came and said everything looked good. They got to the end of the hallway, and her heart rate disappeared and her blood pressure went away,” says Nicole. “It was like what you see in a movie, where you have nurses running from every direction. It’s a very frightening experience.”
Over the next 12 hours, Hayden’s heart rate continued to plummet, and her doctors discovered fluid in her lungs.
“I knew we were losing her,” recalls Nicole. “They pulled us into the hallway and said, ‘The only thing left we can do is put her on a machine called ECMO. It’s a really bad idea—she just had this massive brain surgery. There’s a very good chance she will have a brain bleed and die. But we have no other choice. If we don’t try, she dies.’”
ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, temporarily takes over the work of the heart and lungs so they can rest and heal. Amazingly, Hayden defied the odds and was able to come off of ECMO just 36 hours later.
The next day, the Wheatleys learned Hayden’s fight was not yet over—the mass removed from her brain was an anaplastic ependymoma, a rare form of brain cancer.
“Another punch in the gut—that brain tumor they took out was cancer, and not just any cancer,” says Eric. “This was a very aggressive cancer.”
“There’s about a 40 percent chance that it will come back, and usually if it does, it's very aggressive,” explains Nicole.
Hayden’s treatment included four rounds of chemotherapy and 33 rounds of radiation. Today, due to the trauma her body endured, including a stroke, Hayden undergoes regular physical, occupational, speech, and developmental therapies. She also has MRI scans every three months to check for signs of her cancer returning.
The Wheatleys credit Hayden’s UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital care team for the progress their daughter has made.
“’Thank you’ doesn’t even come close to describing the overwhelming gratitude that I have,” adds Eric. “They’re the greatest people on the planet.”
“We were a normal family one day and then every parent's worst nightmare the next,” adds Nicole. “If it weren't for the nurses, doctors, and surgeons, she wouldn't be here.”