NEW HYDE PARK, NY – Earlier this year, 13-year-old Elizabeth Petitfrere didn’t even know what a tumor was. All she knew what that on January 23, the breathing difficulties she had been experiencing became so intense that she called 911. The only thing she remembers is staying in Cohen Children’s Medical Center for four days – she has no memory of the seriousness of the situation.
During a news conference on Wednesday at Cohen, Elizabeth and her parents, Marie and Joseph Petitfrere of Brentwood, thanked the hospital surgeons who gave her back her ability to breathe. Lee Smith, MD, chief of pediatric otolaryngology at Cohen, and his colleague on this case, David Zeltsman, MD, chief of thoracic surgery at LIJ Medical Center, recalled that when Elizabeth arrived at Cohen, she could hardly breathe. Dr. Smith rushed her to the operating room, where he discovered a large benign tumor the size of a golf ball. The tumor, located just below her vocal cords and extending into her windpipe, caused a 90 percent blockage of her airway.
Using actual footage from the surgery, Dr.Smith described how he removed part of the tumor, easing Elizabeth’s breathing. Further testing and imaging revealed a benign tumor that extended both inside and outside the larynx (voice box) and trachea (wind pipe), a condition so rare that there are fewer than 50 such reported cases in the world.
Elizabeth was brought back to Cohen about three weeks later for another surgery. During a very complex airway surgery that lasted nine hours, Dr. Smith removed the tumor while preserving both nerves leading to the voice box. Adding to the challenge, the nerves controlling the voice box are about the size of a rubber band, so a faulty movement could have caused permanent damage to Elizabeth’s vocal cords. But in order to take out the tumor, surgeons also had to remove part of the lining of Elizabeth’s voice box and the upper section of her trachea (windpipe).
At that point, Dr. Zeltsman (also using images taken during the surgery to describe his work) was called in to resect the diseased portions of the windpipe and put the two ends back together, while simultaneously reconstructing the lining of the voice box.
Elizabeth’s mother said her deep religious faith kept her spirits high during the most difficult moments of her daughter’s surgery. Recalling her emotions, Elizabeth read excerpts from a letter she had written to Dr. Smith shortly after her surgery: “You’re not only a doctor, you’re a dad and a human. Thank you for saving me. I will always remember you forever. Keep saving those lives and may God bless you.”
At the conclusion of Wednesday’s news conference, the hospital prepared a surprise for Elizabeth, who had lost a lot of weight prior to surgery because of her inability to swallow. Her mother had told staff that after surgery Elizabeth couldn’t get enough of her favorite dish -- linguine Alfredo with shrimp. As she finished reading her letter, members of Cohen’s Food Services Department came in with five dishes of linguine, so that Elizabeth and her parents could enjoy a fine lunch with the two surgeons who had brought the brave young girl back to life.
About the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York
Opened in 1983, the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center (CCMC) of New York is home to about 675 pediatricians, including 160 full-time physicians, and a total workforce of more than 1,200, including more than 500 nurses. For the sixth consecutive year in 2012, CCMC was ranked among the best children’s hospitals in the nation in U.S. News & World Report's 2012-13 “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals” survey.