It is Take Our Kids to Work Day and 14 year old Elissa Mendes is with her dad, sports radio broadcaster Ian at his workplace, TSN 1200. So far today, she’s interviewed an Ottawa Senators player and is settling in to the studio for Ian’s show. She has intense brown eyes and an easy smile. She shares her father’s wit and way with words. You can tell the Mendes family is tight-knit, brought even closer by their CHEO story.
Ian and his wife Sonia were over the moon about expecting their first child – a baby girl! But a third trimester ultrasound produced startling images that made it look like half of Elissa’s brain was missing. Further investigation revealed a large cyst and hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in her tiny head. Tough decisions were made.
“This child is no bigger than a loaf of bread,” Ian says. “And they want me to hand her over to a doctor who says she needs brain surgery?” He and Sonia were devastated and terrified.
Dr. Michael Vassilyadi performed Elissa’s first surgery when she was nine days old and several more procedures would follow. He inserted a shunt into her brain, with a tube that drains the fluid into her stomach so it can be released from her body. If left untreated, her condition could have resulted in irreversible brain damage, severe disability and even death.
But the CHEO team has been there for the Mendes family every step of the way. Dr. Vassilyadi features prominently in Elissa’s baby book, with photos of him smiling widely, cradling her in his arms.
While Elissa has avoided the most devastating effects of hydrocephalus, she still struggles. “Sometimes I can’t focus in class because of this drilling pain in my head,” she says. “Those days it’s just better to be at home.”
2017 was a tough year for Elissa. An x-ray revealed her shunt was broken and needed repair. She was suffering uncontrollable headaches that would leave her physically ill and writhing in pain. Then, there was the seizure witnessed by her younger sister Lily.
“When you get really tough news – and we’ve had our world rocked a couple of times,” Ian says. “Things are different at CHEO. It’s heartbreak and magic, care and compassion all at the same time. ”
But these days, Elissa is feeling good. She’s in Grade 9 and volunteering at a sports camp for children. “It’s really fun and the kids are so cute,” she exclaims.
Ian delves a little deeper. “This is the same kid who could barely sit up in her bed,” he points out. “Now, later that same calendar year, she’s going out after a full day at school with the energy and enthusiasm to teach kids to play basketball! As a family, this is the best case scenario!”
For first timers at CHEO, Elissa recommends they surround themselves with support. “My parents are amazing and my sister is always there for me,” she says. And CHEO is an extension of her family. “I’ve always had an amazing team of caring doctors and nurses who would go the extra mile to make me feel better.”
Ian also has advice for parents: “Your mind can take you to some pretty dark places. Avoid the ‘what ifs’ and sink your teeth into the concrete information you have. CHEO has world class care. You’re in the best place.”
And CHEO changed what might have been. “You’re seeing a bright, healthy, young woman,” he says, beaming. “Had Dr. Vassilyadi not intervened, our lives would be very different. I can’t think of a more important place in our community,” Ian says. “There’s nothing that touches people more than children’s health.”
“Kids are the future, right? It’s our job to protect that by supporting CHEO,” Elissa adds.
We feel fortunate to have the Mendes family on Team CHEO!
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