KATELYN’S RUN OF FAITH: A Gainesville family finds blessings when daughter is diagnosed with tumors
Katelyn Brantingham’s lower back was hurting more than usual just before Thanksgiving last year. The pain had been there for almost as long as she could remember but was nothing serious, she said. Just a dull, nagging pain down near her tailbone that would get a little worse after a vigorous workout or one of the 20-year-old college student’s almost-daily 5-mile runs. Katelyn had seen her family doctor about the ache and been to physical therapy, but the pain never really went away.
Then, about three weeks before Thanksgiving, Katelyn complained to her mother, Karen, that the pain was worse and somehow different. Now it was shooting sharp pains down her leg.
“We decided to go see Sally,” Karen told the Times last week. “She was new, with fresh ideas, and she’s like family to us, so she understood all that Katelyn had been through.”
‘We see something’
An appointment was made for Monday, Nov. 20, with Sally Ledbettter Hambelton, a newly credentialed nurse practitioner at Regional Family Medicine in Mountain Home, Arkansas, and a long-time family friend. “Sally suggested Katelyn get an MRI,” Karen said. “We agreed, and Sally made some calls and got Katelyn in the very next day – Tuesday. Afterward, Sally called and said, ‘We see something. We want to do another MRI with contrast.’”
Katelyn felt relief, not fear, at the news. “I thought maybe I had a ruptured disc or something, and I’d have surgery and the pain would go away,” she said. “So I was actually kind of excited.”
“We got back in the following day,” said Karen. “Even Sally was shocked at how quickly everything came together. If you could see my journal from that time, it’s just, ‘God is good. God is good.’ Everything fell into place for Katelyn to get a quick diagnosis.”
Baxter Regional Medical Center neurosurgeon Lucas Bradley, M.D., called the Brantinghams Wednesday after reading the MRI results. “He’s wonderful,” Karen said. “He said he saw a little tumor on Katelyn’s sacrum – a couple of centimeters – and was going to refer us to UAMS [University of Arkansas Medical Sciences] in Little Rock for the surgery. But in the meantime, he was going to do an MRI of her brain and the rest of her spine. He told us he wasn’t expecting to see anything, but they just do that to make sure.”
Katelyn had only three weeks of school left in the semester at Southwest Baptist University, so she and her mom and dad, Dan Brantingham, decided to schedule the surgery for sometime during Christmas break. “At this point, I’m not the least bit worried. I’m thinking she has a little spot that needs to be fixed,” Karen said. “I don’t know if I was naive or overly positive. We were just glad they found something that would make her back feel better.”
But Karen’s mind wouldn’t rest, and she kept thinking about it until she called Sally and said, “You know what? Let’s just get this over with.”
Sally agreed and called Dr. Bradley’s office; the MRIs were set for Thursday, Nov. 30.
After spending a long day that Thursday at BRMC getting the MRIs, it was nearing 5 p.m., and the Brantinghams were watching the clock, knowing they were supposed to meet with Dr. Bradley to go over the results. “I called the office and told them I wasn’t sure we could make it there before they closed,” Karen said. “But Brandi, Dr. Bradley’s nurse practitioner, said they would wait for us.”
‘We were not expecting this’
Brandi met the family in the waiting room and led them to Dr. Bradley’s office, where he showed them a picture of Katelyn’s brain. Nestled at the back of her head, in her cerebellum, was a perfectly white mass, the size and shape of a small egg. “I’m sorry,” said Dr. Bradley. “We were not expecting this.”
“Dan and I were silent,” Karen said. “Even though she’s 20 years old and an adult, my first thought was, I don’t want to say anything. I wanted to choose my words carefully, even though what I wanted to say was, Is this cancer? I didn’t want to say that out loud, though, and I was just careful. But I must have gone white, because he took my arm and said, ‘Here, you sit down.’”
Dan was the first to speak. “What do we do?” he asked.
Dr. Bradley told the family they needed to go to Little Rock as soon as possible, and that Dr. John Day is the best neurosurgeon at UAMS.
“OK, can we leave now?’ Dan asked.
While Dr. Bradley was making arrangements, the Brantinghams asked Brandi to go get Dan’s sister, Betsy Johnson, who was in the waiting room. Betsy took one look at the family members’ faces and said, “OK, let’s pray about this.”
“She never lost her smile. She just said let’s pray about this,” said Katelyn. And she did.
“Betsy prayed that God would assemble the perfect team for Katelyn,” said Karen, her eyes filling with tears. “And He already had – from Sally to the MRI technicians to Brandi and Dr. Bradley. Then, come to find out, Dr. Bradley had trained under Dr. Day, who is an internationally known neurosurgeon. They were all so good.”
Katelyn was scheduled to see Dr. Day at 8 a.m. Monday, Dec. 4.
Her positive attitude set the pace for the rest of her family. “There was a ballgame at Gainesville the night after we met with Dr. Bradley,” said Karen. “I’m just wanting to go home, but Katelyn says, ‘Well, let’s go to the ballgame.’ I asked, ‘Do you really want to?’ and she answered, ‘What are we going to do? Go home and cry about it?’ She’s the one who kept us together for the first couple of days.”
‘All the churches are praying’
In the meantime, Katelyn’s name was showing up on church prayer lists across Ozark County. “Everybody just got behind us – all the churches were praying,” Karen said. “We were just overwhelmed … truly overwhelmed. You know, all that prayer is what carried us through.”
“Everywhere I went I’d see the most random people who would tell me I was on their church’s prayer list,” Katelyn said. “That’s awesome. The amount of people praying was wonderful.”
Before the Brantinghams headed to Little Rock, Betsy and Karen spent hours on the phone, praying and talking. During one conversation, Betsy asked Karen where exactly the tumor was located. “I think she wanted to pray specifically for the exact location. I had these papers from the hospital and had not looked at them. I didn’t want to look at them. But then I open them up, and I stop in my tracks.”
Down at the bottom of the page, under the photo of her young daughter’s brain, were the chilling words “probable lymphoma.”
“I took a red Sharpie, and I wrote Jesus across that page,” Karen said. “I folded it back up, never showed it to Dan, never told another soul except Betsy what it said.”
The Brantinghams traveled to Little Rock and met Monday with Dr. Day, who cleared his schedule so he could do the surgery on Wednesday. He asked Katelyn if she had any questions.
“I asked him if he was going to have to shave my head,” Katelyn asked. “His response was so funny. He said other doctors do it, but ‘us cool doctors’ don’t that.”
His sense of humor was calming for the whole family, Karen said. “He was fun with Katelyn and acted like it was no big deal. Later, Dan told me he was worried before he met Dr. Day that he wouldn’t like him and didn’t know what he would do if he didn’t. But God took care of that. Dr. Day was part of Katelyn’s perfect team.”
Karen asked if they should go home and come back or stay in Little Rock until the surgery, and Dr. Day wanted them to stay and keep Katelyn close. He explained that she had fluid backed up into her third and fourth ventricle that was causing hydrocephalus, which meant there was a lot of pressure on her brain. “At that point, I started thinking about how she’d been running around campus by herself with that tumor and all that pressure in her head,” Karen said.
Wednesday, after the four-hour surgery, Dr. Day called Karen and Dan back to the recovery department. “He said he got it out, that it was the size of a small egg and he had to pick at it a little bit because it was really stuck,” Karen said. “He went on, saying she could have some facial weakness and vision problems because it was on the optic nerve. He’s going on and on about the surgery until I break in and ask, ‘Is it malignant?’’
Dr. Day smiled and said, “’I’m saving the best for last: NO.”
The mass was a pilocytic astrocytoma – a juvenile tumor that had probably been growing 10 to 15 years in Katelyn’s head.
‘Little blessings everywhere’
The UAMS waiting room was filled with friends and family offering support to Katelyn and her family, who were delighted to hear the good news and the answer to so many prayers. Among those friends was Tali Rose, who attends SBU with Katelyn.
Tali insisted on staying with Katelyn until she was dismissed on Sunday. “She would not go back,” Karen said. “Such a sweet, sweet friendship. Tali needed to get back to school; finals were the next week. I called Paula [Tali’s mother], but she said she couldn’t make her go back, that Tali felt like God wanted her there.”
On Dec. 27, 2017, Katelyn underwent surgery to remove the tumor on her sacrum, the bone just below the lumbar spine. Doctors believe that, in an extremely rare occurrence, a piece of the original tumor in her brain broke off and traveled down her spinal fluid and lodged itself on her sacrum. A pediatric neurosurgeon told Dr. Day during a conference that he had only heard of two other cases of this happening.
Since then, Katelyn has been working hard on recovering. “It’s a time of learning patience for me. I have so much impatience, it’s crazy,” she laughed.
“I couldn’t do anything after my brain surgery. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t dress myself, I couldn’t shower by myself. I could barely eat. The surgery was on my cerebellum, and that affects balance and hand-eye coordination. But I knew it was going to get better. I told everyone, ‘It’s great. God is good. It’s all OK and will get better. Life is so good.’”
Katelyn still has double-vision unless she wears a patch over one eye, but she said she feels like it’s improving.
“Physically, I’m good, besides my eyesight,” she said. “I walk on the treadmill, and I hold on really tight. I get faster and faster every day, it seems like. I can lift weights. At first, I could only lift about 10 pounds, but my doctor said to lift whatever I could tolerate, so I lift as much weight as I can.
On Tuesday, March 13, the sun was shining down on Katelyn and her running buddy Chase Luna when she ran outside for the first time in four months. She’s taking an online class, has reapplied to SBU to resume classes in the fall and is trying to teach herself how to play piano.
“Little blessings are everywhere. I can see. I can walk. I can run. I have an awesome support system,” she said. “God is so good.”