Specialized care for kids with brain tumors

Dr. Sarah Rush performs a neurological exam on Leah Merriman in early March 2013.

Dr. Sarah Rush performs a neurological exam on Leah Merriman in early March 2013.

When Gina and Mitchell Merriman learned in December that their 8-year-old daughter, Leah, had a brain tumor, they were devastated.

The Stow, Ohio, family immediately began a medical journey that would include MRIs and visits with multiple pediatric specialists at Akron Children’s.

The initial jolt of bad news was tempered with some good news. First, Leah’s tumor was benign – although there would still be complications due its location.

Then, more good news.

Shortly after the diagnosis, the Merrimans learned that a physician who specializes in brain tumors in children would be joining Akron Children’s Showers Family Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders.

That physician,  Sarah Rush, had even been studying Leah’s type of brain tumor during her fellowship program at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“It was a true blessing,” said Gina. “As a parent, you are willing to go anywhere to get the best treatment for your child. How wonderful was it that we didn’t have to go anywhere?”

dr-rush-with-leahWith her arrival at Akron Children’s, Dr. Rush is now heading up the hospital’s new brain tumor clinic for children and teens. She will work in close consultation with the hospital’s divisions of pediatric neurosurgery, neurology and neuropsychology.

As a pediatric neuro-oncologist, her primary clinical interest is tumors of the brain, brainstem and spine.

“Thankfully, the vast majority of brain tumors in children are benign,” said Dr. Rush. “But even benign tumors can cause complications and deficits. These patients often need interventions such physical, occupational and speech therapy and may need extra support at school as they recover.”

It’s been something of a homecoming for Dr. Rush, who completed her pediatric residency at Akron Children’s Hospital and served as chief resident between 2002 and 2006.

She graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and completed a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, followed by her fellowship in pediatric neuro-oncology.

“Great strides have been made in diagnosing and treating tumors in children in the past 20 years,” she said. “MRIs, in particular, keep getting better and better at helping us pinpoint the location of a tumor.”

Along with the advances in technology and treatments is greater recognition that children with cancer – and their families – need lots of support. Depending on the patient’s needs, the team at Akron Children’s may include pediatric neurosurgery, neuropsychology, neurology, endocrinology, psychology, physiatry, palliative care, ophthalmology, physical, occupational and speech therapy, and social work.

dr-rush-with-leah2As for Leah, she is getting low-dose chemotherapy and checks in for an MRI of the brain every three months. But she is still in school and playing basketball and soccer.

“She can do 100 cartwheels,” says her mom, with a smile.

With her 9th birthday coming up, Leah is wishing for her own balance beam to perfect her gymnastic moves at home.

We hope Leah gets her birthday wish and we’re sending many more happy, healing wishes her way.

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