The little girl left the hospital with her parents late Tuesday following a morning news conference in which she answered reporters' questions as best she could — at one point saying to her mother, "I have no idea what 'coping' means" — and after a round of emotional goodbyes with doctors and staff.
Her parents, Tina and Joseph McNamara of Islip Terrace, N.Y., said they had a lot to be thankful for. On Feb. 6, Heather endured a 23-hour operation in which doctors at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital temporarily took out her stomach, pancreas, spleen, liver and large and small intestines in a daring attempt to remove what other surgeons had called an inoperable tumor in her abdomen.
The operation was the first of its kind in a child. Surgeon Tomoaki Kato was unable to replace the girl's stomach, so he fashioned a replacement from her intestine. The cancer had also destroyed her pancreas, making her diabetic, and her spleen, leaving her prone to infections.
"Thank you for giving me back Heather," Tina McNamara said during Tuesday's news conference. She said the operation capped a nightmare ordeal of medical visits that took the family as far away as Miami in a frustrating search for a surgeon capable of saving their daughter.
In Kato, they found him. "Everyone said, 'She'll end up dying on the table.' He was our last hope," Tina said.
Kato had done a similar operation a year ago on a 62-year-old South Florida woman, who had fared pretty well. He said the family was in "panic mode" by the time they found him.
The surgery resembled a multiple-organ transplant, Kato said, except that the young patient served as her own donor and did not need anti-rejection drugs. Her organs were removed and chilled in a preservative at 4 degrees above zero. Those that the cancer hadn't destroyed were replaced in her body.
Kato's biggest fear was that her liver might fail. He asked her father, a volunteer firefighter, to serve as a live donor, if need be. Fortunately, the organ survived, and the call never came.
When Heather awoke after the surgery, she had just one question for her father: "Is it gone?" Tina McNamara said. Told that it was, Heather said, "Dr. Kato's my hope."
Although, I am running with Team in Training to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, I know that LLS helps contribute to research of all cancers and to doctors like Dr. Kato who NEVA DIV UP! Wow! This story makes my heart swell with hope!