In the morning of Dec. 21, 2007, 12-year-old Alicia Sophabmixay visited her family doctor after experiencing a variety of long-lasting cold symptoms. Under the impression that her condition was far from serious, Alicia’s doctor sent her on her way.
Alicia’s symptoms worsened during a shopping trip to the mall that afternoon. She began experiencing breathing difficulties and was taken to the emergency room at her local hospital, where she collapsed on the floor.
Alicia’s heart stopped beating for about a minute and her lung collapsed. She was resuscitated and breathing tubes were inserted.
“We were so worried about her,” said Katherine Sophabmixay, Alicia’s aunt. “In a way, we are so lucky that the incident happened when we got to the hospital. If it had happened any sooner, there would have been nothing we could have done for her.”
Convinced Alicia’s condition was far more serious than anticipated, the local doctors sent Alicia by ambulance to the Janet Weis Children’s Hospital at Geisinger.
Much to Alicia and her family’s surprise, a CT scan revealed a large mass in Alicia’s chest that was putting pressure on her heart and fusing together her trachea and esophagus. The mass was soon identified as a large tumor; Alicia was diagnosed with T-Cell lymphoblastic lymphoma.
“Non hodgkins lymphoma tends to be aggressive and is more widespread than other types of cancer,” said Jagadeesh Ramdas, M.D., director of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Geisinger Medical Center. “We knew we had to work fast. Alicia started treatment in six hours of her arrival.”
On Christmas Eve, Alicia underwent emergency radiation and was given only a 50 percent chance of survival from the disease.
Miraculously, on Christmas morning, Alicia’s condition began to improve. The mass had shrunk three millimeters in a 24-hour period. Alicia was able to breathe on her own. Alicia stayed two more weeks at the hospital. Chemotherapy was continued at home and her condition seemed to improve.
Alicia’s problems were far from over. Vomiting, dehydration and a returned cough landed Alicia back at Janet Weis Children’s Hospital, where a second CT scan showed that cancer had eaten a hole in the wall of her esophagus and trachea.
The holes in her esophagus allowed food and saliva to leak, resulting in a rare tissue-eating infection throughout Alicia’s body, called mediastinitis. Along with suffering from the dangerous complications of both the tumor and the infection, breathing tubes were needed again, along with another tube to drain her esophagus.
Unable to eat on her own, a pump was hooked up to her stomach to give her necessary nutrients. This feeding assistance continued for five months and Alicia dropped to 60 pounds.
During this time, Dr. Ramdas insisted Alicia’s chemotherapy continue and the decision proved successful and her health slowly improved.
During the following months Alicia’s infection disappeared and in January 2009, a team of doctors and family members made a decision to remove Alicia’s breathing tube. Although doing so was a big risk, shouts of joy could be heard near Alicia’s room when the tube was removed. Alicia could finally breathe on her own. She was then sent to a hospital in Cincinnati for successful reconstructive surgery on her esophagus.
Alicia’s esophagus healed fast and doctors removed her stomach pump a month after surgery. Little by little, Alicia was able to eat again. Though the following eight months of Alicia’s recovery were slow and exhausting, she seemed to make incredible progress.
“Throughout her treatment, her body did things to heal that amazed the medical community. Residents and doctors kept coming to see her because they couldn’t believe how she was surviving,” Katherine said.
Amazingly, in January 2010, Alicia was deemed cancer free and all forms of treatment ended. Today, 16-year-old Alicia is home, back at school and has a promising future.
“It was a roller-coaster ride. The staff did a really wonderful job and without them I wouldn’t be alive,” Alicia said.
Both Alicia and her family thank staff members at Geisinger for being so wonderful and supportive. Alicia’s family was well aware that the staff’s main priority was to keep her happy, while receiving highly advanced treatment, explaining that the doctors and nurses were “a lot like family.”
Staff members at Geisinger also remember Alicia fondly.
“What I remember most is her smile”, said Becky Sneidman, nurse practitioner, pediatric hematology oncology. “She was always okay no matter what her treatment was. She never complained.”
Alicia was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that affected her breathing and was treated at Janet Weis Children's Hospital at Geisinger.