BRUNSWICK | On Easter Sunday in 2011, Shannon and Garrett Phillips were slightly irresponsible parents.
It’s not like they left their 2-year-old daughter Hannah in a hot SUV, but she got hurt because of their failure to act.
And they thank God for it.
A nurse, Shannon Phillips is a little overprotective. The couple were watching a cousin push their little girl in a swing made for bigger kids and saying they needed to get her off before she fell.
“Then we both just sat there and didn’t get her. Two or three minutes later she fell backward out of the swing and hit the back of her head,” Shannon Phillips said.
Hannah vomited immediately, a sign of a concussion, so they rushed her to Wayne Memorial Hospital in Jesup. Doctors there sent her by ambulance to Jacksonville for a further evaluation by Phillip Aldana, chief of the Lucy Gooding Children’s Neurosurgery Center at Wolfson Children’s Hospital.
As their stay in the waiting room stretched into hours, Shannon Phillips said she knew something was wrong. The Phillipses’ worst fear had been for a concussion, but was even worse. A CT scan showed she had a brain tumor that was taking up a fifth of the space in her skull.
Five more days of testing and a biopsy in the hospital showed that Hannah had a lemon-sized grade 1 pilocytic astrocytoma tumor in her optic nerve that was causing vision loss in her left eye. The cancer came from the most common cells in the brain, Aldana said in a Wolfson release.
And this is why the Phillipses are perhaps the only two parents in America who are glad their child fell on her head.
“Had we not found it when we did,” Aldana said, “Hannah probably would have had worsening headaches, vomiting, seizures and even could have gone into a comatose state. Eventually, it would have caught up with her.”
But it hadn’t yet — she hadn’t shown the first symptom — and now she’s well out in front of it again, in kindergarten in Wayne County and doing well.
Not that it’s been easy.
She had to undergo three years of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor so that Aldana could remove it. Aldana got about 80 percent but didn’t risk trying to remove all of it because it was so close to important arteries, her pituitary and hypothalamus glands and the optic nerve to her good right eye, Wolfson said.
What once looked like a lemon is now the size of a Frito. Hannah will undergo annual monitoring scans, but it’s unlikely the tumor will bother her again, according to Wolfson.
Chemotherapy alone, though, is bad enough with the nausea and other side effects, but it didn’t bother Hannah.
The Phillipses are devout Christians and they prayed their daughter would have no side effects. That prayer was almost completely answered.
“We were completely blessed, for sure, through it all,” Shannon Phillips said. “Her hair got a little thin, but she never lost weight. She would sit and eat a Happy Meal while she was getting chemo.”
Unfortunately, Shannon and Garrett Phillips already had experience in dealing with cancer in a child.
More than a decade ago their son Zachary was diagnosed with retinal cancer at 6 weeks old. He was undergoing treatment at Emory when the oncologist told them the tiny tumors in his retina were still growing aggressively.
“The doctor said I don’t know what you believe in, but if you pray, this would be a good time to do it,” she said.
They prayed and the next examination showed nothing but scars.
The doctor said, “I don’t know what y’all did …”
What they did was take his advice.
Zachary lost an eye, but he’s 14 now and in middle school.
The Phillipses are grateful for Wolfson and for the compassion and support from the hospital, their church home, Victory Tabernacle in the Gardi community, and everything and everyone between and beyond.
When Hannah had her surgery, people wore purple to show they were behind her and many were along the way to greet her when she came home.
“It really means a lot when you know you’re not by yourself,’’ Shannon Phillips said.
As for Hannah, she’s enjoying kindergarten after having to miss a lot of time in pre-K last year because of her treatments.
From all accounts, her hair is long and curled and it covers that little scar from her surgery.
She also likes to swing. And there’s no reason to stop her.
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