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Doctor is ‘legendary’ in pediatric patient’s eyes


Anna Wilkinson did not have to think too hard about who she wanted to be for her elementary school’s “Be Legendary Day.” She could choose to dress up as anyone, past or present, who was an inspiration or legend to her. For Wilkinson, that person was Gary Tye, M.D., her neurosurgeon at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, who removed her cancerous brain tumor in 2013.

“I ended up choosing Dr. Tye because he is pretty legendary to me and my family.”

“The decision was between my mom and Dr. Tye,” said Wilkinson, 10. “I ended up choosing Dr. Tye because he is pretty legendary to me and my family.”

Wilkinson’s costume consisted of a borrowed lab coat from her mom, a stethoscope she acquired from one of her many hospital stays, and a homemade VCU Health and CHoR name badge with Tye’s photo and name.

Wilkinson met Tye in September 2013 when she was 7 years old. She had recently celebrated her birthday and started the second grade when she began experiencing headaches and infrequent bouts of vomiting. Her parents took her to her primary care physician and she was diagnosed with strep throat. After a round of antibiotics, the headaches and vomiting continued. After another doctor’s visit that included blood work, which came back normal, her mom, Cynthia, thought there may be a different problem.

“She had just started back to school, so I thought maybe she just didn’t like her teacher or was having a hard time adjusting to second grade,” Cynthia Wilkinson said. “After a 45-minute conversation with her doctor, we decided to send her back to school to see how she did throughout the day and then reassess her symptoms.”

That morning, while waiting in the school drop-off line, Anna Wilkinson told her mom that she was experiencing double-vision.

“I thought to myself, ‘That’s it,’” Cynthia Wilkinson said. “I just knew it was her brain.”

Within hours, they were in a hospital emergency room getting an MRI. A tumor was found on Anna Wilkinson’s brain. The family was immediately sent to the CHoR emergency room where Tye was waiting to meet them and discuss the next step of removing the tumor.

Anna Wilkinson was admitted to the hospital for several rounds of prednisone to reduce brain swelling caused by the tumor. The tumor was then removed and sent to pathology for testing to help Tye and his team develop the best possible treatment plan.

The report came back in less than 10 days. It was a malignant germinoma.

“Dr. Tye was so reassuring and put us at ease … well, as much ease as a parent can have when they hear their child has a malignant brain tumor,” said Cynthia Wilkinson. “He said, well, it is cancer, but if you’re going to have cancer this is a good one to have because it responds well to treatment.”

A plan was put in place — four rounds of chemotherapy followed by radiation. But before treatment could begin, Anna Wilkinson contracted meningitis, which required a monthlong stay in CHoR’s pediatric intensive care unit. She started chemotherapy in November, after the meningitis subsided. During her second round of chemotherapy, the headaches returned. A CT scan revealed that scar tissue had built up over the incision, which was causing fluid buildup and the headaches. A second brain surgery was needed to correct this condition.

“The second surgery was very quick,” said Cynthia Wilkinson. “Anna was home within two days and her treatment continued on schedule.”

Anna Wilkinson finished chemotherapy and started radiation therapy at VCU Massey Cancer Center. She had treatments every other day for two months. The radiation worked. Her subsequent scans and blood work showed no signs of cancer.

While sick, Anna Wilkinson missed nearly all of second grade. She was taught by a home-bound teacher while in treatment and then returned to school for third grade. It was a battle. Her body had been through so much that she only had the energy to go for a few hours at a time. She gradually stayed for longer days, but took naps with the pre-school children because she was so exhausted.

Today, she has been cancer-free for three years and returns to the hospital every six months for checkups, blood-work and an MRI scan. Her family is looking forward to the new 3T MRI, which will open this summer in the Children’s Pavilion.

“She’s able to do everything now that she did before,” Cynthia Wilkinson said. “She’s playing soccer, basketball and she’s back to gymnastics. She’s going to camp this summer. Thanks to the quick work of Dr. Tye and the countless other care providers at Children’s Hospital and VCU, she’s ready to start her busy summer like all other 10-year-olds. To our family and I’m sure countless others, Dr. Tye is legendary.”

Anna Wilkinson and Gary Tye, M.D. 
Photo by Julia Rendleman

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