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A rare brain tumor, treated by an everyday “superhero”

Six-year-old Katelyn learned that not all heroes wear capes—sometimes they wear scrubs.

Young girl in black leotard doing a split on a gymnastics mat in her home.
Katelyn’s an accomplished dancer. And also a math whiz!

At first, Susan Gregorie thought her daughter, Katelyn, just had a bout of the flu. Her normally active 6-year-old daughter, who loves to dance and play soccer, just “wasn’t acting like herself.” Since the little girl had a low-grade fever and was tired, and with flu season just beginning to rear its ugly head that year, flu seemed the logical conclusion. The Gregories, who live in Kings Park, NY, took Katelyn to the pediatrician, who also suspected flu.

But rest and TLC didn’t make Katelyn better, and Susan was worried. “It wasn’t until she started having these awful headaches and neckaches, to the point that she couldn’t sleep, that I thought it might be some kind of more serious virus,” Susan said.

Then, one Friday a few weeks later, Susan’s husband, Devin, who works from home, called his wife in alarm.

“He said that Katelyn was getting worse,” Susan recalled. “He told me her eyes were crossing toward her nose, and she was just sleeping all day. I decided we needed to go to Cohen Children’s Medical Center. It’s known as the best of the best around here, and I needed to know what was really going on.”

At the emergency department, the attending physician looked at Katelyn’s eyes and immediately ordered a CAT scan. Susan said the doctor had told her that the scan should take about 20 minutes, so when the technician stopped the test after five minutes, saying that they had everything they needed, she knew in her gut that something was terribly wrong.

“The doctors came into the room a few minutes later and told us Katelyn had a brain tumor and would need to see a neurosurgeon,” Susan said. “My knees just buckled. It was absolutely the worst thing you could hear. Devin and I actually both heard an announcement over the loudspeaker, ‘Neurosurgeon to the ER,’ and luckily, he walked in less than 20 minutes later, having already looked at the CAT scan, ready to talk to us.”

The Gregories now call that neurosurgeon, Mark Mittler, MD, their “superhero.”

Young girl in a blue top sitting on the grass with a small black dog in front of a white fence.
Katelyn enjoys playing with the family pup, Charlie.

“We’ve just gotten the worst news we can get, and he was just so calm and reassuring,” she said. “He explained what they saw, that Katelyn would need a two-hour MRI later that night, and that he would sedate her so she wouldn’t feel any discomfort—he just put everything into terms that we could understand.”

Later that night, after the MRI scan, Dr. Mittler confirmed the need for surgery to remove the 9-centimeter mass.

“He was so cool, calm and collected. He explained exactly what they would do and answered every question we had,” Susan said. “Dr. Mittler told us he was going to come in the next morning with his surgical team, and they were going to remove the tumor. He also said the tumor was in the best possible place it could be so that they could remove it all. And that’s just what they did. He even called from the operating room to let us know how things were going.”

It took five hours, but Dr. Mittler and his team were able to remove the anaplastic ependymoma, a rare type of brain tumor. Susan said that Katelyn’s recovery at Cohen Children’s was wonderful. Dr. Mittler, the nurses and the child life specialists went above and beyond to make sure Katelyn was comfortable.

Young girl on the grass mid-cartwheel in a blue top and blue jean shorts in front of a white fence.
Tumor-free, Katelyn’s cartwheeling through a happy childhood.

After a few days in the hospital and several weeks recovering at home, Katelyn was back playing soccer and dancing her heart out. But a couple of months in, doctors discovered a small recurrence of the tumor. Dr. Mittler, after consulting with colleagues, told the Gregories that he could remove that, too—plus some surrounding tissue to potentially prevent further regrowth—and did so with the help of computer guidance technology in the operating room. 

“We knew he could do it. He really is our superhero. Katelyn says he’s as bright as the sun,” Susan said. “We are forever grateful for this man and couldn’t have asked for a better doctor for our little girl.”

Now 8 years old, you wouldn’t know that Katelyn ever had a brain tumor. She plays competitive soccer (frequently scoring goals in her tournaments), is a member of two dance groups and is a Girl Scout, to boot. She’s also a math whiz, consistently scoring 100s on quizzes and tests.

“Neurologically speaking, she hasn’t been affected by this. She is doing all the things she did before. She really leads a normal life, thank God,” Susan said. “She’s doing absolutely amazing, and it’s all thanks to Cohen Children’s and Dr. Mittler.”

A rare brain tumor, treated by an everyday “superhero”