Children's performs miracle for military family

October 28, 2010

Soldier's son overcomes overwhelming obstacles to survive liver cancer

Two-year-old Tatum Crowell enters a room in his Killeen, Texas home with the aggression of an NFL linebacker.

Sprinting and ricocheting from one activity to the next, Tatum thrives on excitement. Every word he speaks is loud. Every movement is explosive.

At first glance, it's surprising that this whirlwind of a boy is surviving with a liver that doctors thought wouldn't function. Most toddlers with that type of condition are bed-ridden or worse. But the more time you spend with Tatum, you realize that all the energy and fight he has inside him enabled him to survive liver cancer in the first place.

Soldier father faces greatest fear

Staff Sgt. Joshua Crowell learned of his only son's liver cancer during the 11th month of his second tour of duty in Iraq. His wife, Jasmine Crowell, sent him an emergency message through the Red Cross as soon she was given Tatum's diagnosis in August 2007. Crowell returned home three days later.

The last time he saw Tatum was as a healthy 8-month-old baby. When he arrived at Tatum's hospital room, doctors told him that cancer had consumed 90 percent of his son's liver.

"I don't think it ever sunk in for me, because life became so hectic after that," said Crowell. "We were in the hospital seven out of the next nine months. And we only went home for one month during that period."

Instead of succumbing to the despair that accompanied their son's diagnosis, the Crowells developed a proactive attitude.

"All I really knew was we had to kick cancer's butt and move on," said Crowell. "I just wanted my son to come home."

Patriotism compels Children's doctor

Tatum's situation became dire by late December 2007. The cancer in his liver was extending toward his heart. If it reached, Tatum would die.

Tatum's gastroenterologist in Temple sought advice from Dr. Srinath Chinnakotla, the surgical director of the pediatric liver transplantation program at Children's. Dr. Chinnakotla suggested giving Tatum chemotherapy. Tatum's doctors had refrained from trying chemo up to this point, fearing that it would do more harm than good, but they took Dr. Chinnakotla's advice.

The chemo shrunk the tumor enough for Dr. Chinnakotla to believe that he could remove it before the cancer reached Tatum's heart. He wanted to bring Tatum to Children's, but the family's insurance did not have a contract with Children's.

"I called their insurance and explained the delicate circumstances of Tatum's cancer and his father's involvement in the military," said Dr. Chinnakotla. "I said, 'They desperately need to come here.' And the insurance agreed."

"When the Crowells arrived, I said, 'You are sacrificing for the nation; so, we will take care of your child.' We would have taken care of them regardless, but this was a special situation for me to help a soldier's family."

Plane failure stalls transplant

A liver became available in Pennsylvania 10 days after Dr. Chinnakotla put Tatum on a transplant waiting list. Dr. Chinnakotla then sent a couple of physicians from his team on a private jet to retrieve the liver and return to Children's.

The liver only had a 12-hour window to be safely transplanted into Tatum from the moment the physicians picked it up. A mechanical failure in the plane made it impossible to meet that deadline. The plane had to make an emergency landing in Kentucky in the middle of the night.

Dr. Chinnakotla had Jet Aviation call every aircraft within the region to find flights that would transport his physicians with the liver back to Dallas. Eventually, a cargo plane in Missouri agreed to make the flight, but the 12-hour-window had expired.

"Basically, I thought to myself, 'This is the point where we're going to lose Tatum,'" said Mrs. Crowell. "Dr. Chinnakotla came in and said, 'By the time the liver gets here, it will be about 18 to 20 hours old. We could attempt to put it in, but there is a chance it will not work right away, and we'll have to put him on life support until we can find another transplant.'"

Faithful decision saves Tatum's life

The Crowells did not know if they would be fortunate enough for Tatum to receive another transplant quickly enough. The fact that Tatum received the first liver in only ten days was exceptional, and every day that Tatum did not have chemo or a liver transplant, the cancer crept closer to his heart.

"In my mind, we had the options of death or death to choose for Tatum," said Mrs. Crowell. "I called our parents. I called a pastor. We talked to the chaplain. But everyone told us that we would have to make the decision for ourselves.

"Finally, I asked Dr. Chinnakotla, 'If this was your child, what would you do?' He looked me dead in the eye and said, 'I would go for the transplant.' So, we went ahead with it.

"I didn't put my faith in anyone else but God and Dr. Chinnakotla. I told him, 'You are going to be the one to make a miracle here.' And he did."

The Crowells had been awake and waiting at Children's for around 27 hours by the time the transplant surgery was completed at 4 a.m. Jan. 14. Dr. Chinnakotla removed the whole tumor with an innovative technique that didn't require opening Tatum's chest.

"The surgery turned out great," said Dr. Chinnakotla. "And he's still doing great. There are no signs of the cancer returning."

"There is just no stopping him"

Today, Tatum appears to have the vitality of 10 boys in one.

"I know this sounds weird, but if anyone was going to get cancer, I am glad it was Tatum," said Mrs. Crowell. "I am told on a daily basis that most other kids would not have made it. He truly is a miracle child. Tatum will always be going. There is just no stopping him. He will always be playing and playing."