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That was a Monday night in March 2015. The 36 hours prior, when Ender was admitted to their local hospital in Fort Smith, were a blur for the Pense family. Ender been throwing up for days, with an assumed strep infection, and was down to 17 pounds from 21. By Monday evening, his medical team decided Ender needed a pediatric neurologist. They recommended he be transferred to Arkansas Children's Hospital by Angel One Transport.
Jennifer says they were impressed by the swift response upon their arrival in Little Rock. Overnight, the heads of pediatric gastroenterology, pediatric cardiology, and pediatric neurology examined Ender. In spite of all the attention, however, she says she and her husband didn't allow themselves to entertain worst-case scenarios. "We're not big worriers," she explains. "We lean toward faith over fear."
When Ender was referred by gastroenterology for an MRI of his head, the Pense Family fully expected it to come back with positive results. "When the results showed a brain tumor," says Josh, "they didn't just come and drop that news on our lap and leave. They had people ready and waiting to support us."
"That nurse knew exactly what to do and say," recalls Jennifer. "She was awesome. She told us to take a minute and collect ourselves before meeting with the neurosurgeon." The same calm confidence carried over into that consultation with the neurosurgeon.
"Dr. Greg Albert is incredible," she says. "His straightforward, confident, matter-of-fact approach allowed me to stay very calm, so I understood what was happening."
Josh agrees. "He didn’t talk down to us, but showed us the MRI images and explained his plan."
Jennifer adds, "I could see that he knew clearly what the problem was, and he knew he could solve it, which gave me a ton of confidence."
Dr. Albert was concerned about fluid buildup from a cyst on the tumor that was causing lots of pressure on Ender's brain. The immediate plan was to place a drain and then do a biopsy to learn what kind of tumor it was. The initial MRI scans also showed evidence of a small stroke at the time. Time was of the essence.
Then something unexpected happened. After the drain and biopsy on Wednesday morning, Dr. Albert couldn't see the tumor anymore. A follow-up MRI now showed that not only had the first stroke resolved, but the tumor was now loose and floating in fluid.
"I could tell that Dr. Albert was excited because he could extract the tumor now." Dr. Albert's initial plan was to deal with the cyst and let the tumor go - as long as it proved benign. Instead, he removed the tumor entirely, and Ender's vital signs began to improve immediately.
During recovery, Jennifer says, Arkansas Children's staff was "absolutely incredible. Not only did that nurse come and find us in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, but the helicopter staff also came and found us. They didn't have to do that. They wanted to see how he was doing. Everyone we encountered showed us they cared, and that made a difference."
After Ender was released to go home, he started leaking through the small hole in his skull from the surgery. The Pense Family drove three hours back to ACH. Jennifer remembers Dr. Albert met them in a tux, having left a formal event to tend to Ender. He repaired the leak, and Ender was soon back on track with recovery. Apart from the follow-up scans for the next few years, his parents say, it was as if none of it had ever happened. Today, Ender is a typical high-energy boy.
The Pense Family, now living in Springdale, say that the opening of Arkansas Children's Northwest has made an enormous difference. Ender has a twin brother, Asher, and having to make the trip to Little Rock was a significant upheaval. With ACNW open, they say, they experience the same excellent quality of care without the disruption.
Recently, it was Asher's turn to be the patient, when he required stitches in his forehead and chin. Josh says, "When you go to the Emergency Room at Children's, they know how to take care of children. A child life worker came in with a doll and was able to talk to Asher in a way he'd understand. Consequently, he was able to get stitches while completely awake and calm."
"Families with young children don't need the added stress from environments that aren't geared to handle their needs," he says. "It's called Arkansas Children's for a reason, and it shows!"