It is just a lamp. Just a light, a shade, and little bulbs for a stand that sits in the family room. Diane and Paul Holubeck bought it from Davidson’s Furniture Showcase in the fall of 2005. It truly is just a lamp. Yet every time Diane Holubeck looks at the light, she remembers.
Mrs. Holubeck’s daughter, junior Peyton Holubeck, survived childhood ependymoma brain cancer. She bought the lamp when she and her husband left Omaha’s Children’s Hospital right before Peyton’s nurses decided to wash the blood out of her matted and tangled, post-brain surgery hair.
“We had to walk out of the hospital just to get out and be normal,” Mrs. Holubeck said.
It started July of 2005. Four year old Peyton spent a day at the museum with her grandmother. Mrs. Holubeck’s mother in law pointed out that Peyton’s head tilted slightly throughout the day. She thought nothing of it. It had to be normal. Kids are always doing slightly strange things, and she still had full range of motion, anyway.
August rolled around. On just another normal day, Peyton walked up to her mom.
“Mom, you have four eyes,” Peyton said to her mother.
Mrs. Holubeck peered over her glasses and laughed a little. That phrase must be something she learned from a friend. She pulled them off and asked her if she still had ‘four eyes.’ Peyton affirmed that yes, her mom still appeared to have four.
Mrs. Holubeck paused. Just recently, Peyton ran to her and complained that her room was spinning when she woke up.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” Mrs. Holubeck said.
She made a concerned call to their pediatrician. He instructed them to go straight to the emergency room if something was really wrong, but otherwise he would see if he could schedule them for an appointment at a later date.
Then Peyton began throwing up bile. The pediatrician fit her in the next day. And on August 2nd of 2005, she had a 6:30 am MRI appointment at Children’s Hospital.
“They imaged her and it popped immediately,” Mrs. Holubeck said.
The staff sent Mrs. Holubeck to a private room to take the call from their pediatrician.
“Diane, they found something. It’s a tumor; Peyton’s got a brain tumor,” the pediatrician said to Mrs. Holubeck
Mrs. Holubeck began speaking a mile a minute. She reluctantly broke the news to her husband. All the while, Peyton waited. Mother and daughter had to sit and hope that something could be done.
“We waited for a long time. They were trying to determine what surgeons would be available,” Mrs. Holubeck said. “All you think is ‘Is she going to be okay? They’re going into her brain. Is something going to happen to her?’”
The waiting continued. Doctors declared Peyton NPO, or nothing by mouth. She hadn’t eaten anything all day.
“Does anyone even know I’ve been in here for hours upon end? It’s 2:30, we’ve been here since 6:30, the poor kid hasn’t eaten,” Mrs. Holubeck said.
Both her and the pediatrician raged. Finally, by 4:00 pm, they found a suitable surgeon. Peyton remembers very little, but she does remember her mother’s determination.
“Are you really on the top of your game? Are you really up for this?” Mrs. Holubeck said to the surgeons.
They fired back. These things aren’t planned. Nevertheless, the surgeons were prepared. Then came the anesthesiologist. He saw little Peyton sitting in the bed, and cried. Peyton had to undergo traumatic brain surgery. She was only four, the same age as the anesthesiologist’s daughter.
“You better get your act together. You’ve got to go into surgery and I’m the mother, and you’re crying? This is insanity! I’m the one telling you to be calm, and I’m the mother!” Mrs. Holubeck said to the anesthesiologist.
Peyton’s whole family showed. The family’s minister came. Together, they watched her wheel away in the bed toward brain surgery. Brain surgery, for a four year old little girl.
“Part of it was just comical. You have to find the humor in anything,” Mrs. Holubeck said.
“Excuse me Mrs. Holubeck, but this is no time for jokes,” the neurosurgeon said.
“Excuse me, Dr. Hubbell, would you prefer that I sit here and cry like a baby? Would that make you feel more comfortable? Would that be what normal people do?” Mrs. Holubeck said. “Well, that’s not what I’m going to do because my daughter is not going to see me cry. She’s four years old. So you can deal with my jokes. That’s how I cope.”
While the initial surgery never caused any problems, MRI scans a few weeks afterward showed that residual tumor still sat behind her brain.
The radiation oncologist at the Nebraska Center of Medicine refused to treat Peyton. He had a child her age too, and could not fathom administering a high amount of radiation on a girl that small. Instead, he gave them a referral to a doctor at St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
Then Katrina hit.
The hurricane that slammed Louisiana forced thousands into hospitals, packing St. Jude with overflow patients and their families. The hospital denied Peyton admittance. With radiation off the only other option was a second surgery, so long as her original team agreed to it.
On September 8th of 2005, Peyton went under the knife again. The team removed all they could. She would be okay until St. Jude made space for her. Recovery from brain surgery was rough, but as Peyton bounced back, doctors noticed something with her hearing. During the surgery, a faulty snip cut a blood vessel which supplied her left ear, causing partial deafness. The doctors felt horrible, but Mrs. Holubeck kept her positivity.
“If that’s all, after two brain surgeries, don’t worry about it,” Mrs. Holubeck said.
Recovery lasted a few weeks. On September 20th, 2005, the family scheduled to fly to Memphis. All seemed to progress okay, until Mrs. Holubeck noticed a watery substance leaking from Peyton’s incision. Cerebrospinal fluid leaked from the back of her neck. One over-suture didn’t fix the problem. On the morning of their flight out, fluid began leaking from Peyton’s tiny head and saturating the couch. The family was instructed to meet their team at the emergency room for one more attempt at suturing.
The family rushed from emergency room to airport. Fluid in the back of Peyton’s neck swelled to the size of a plantain by the time they arrived at the hospital. Doctors feared a third surgery was necessary to check the patch that was used to cover the brain opening.
Peyton transferred to Le Bonheur Children’s hospital in Memphis for surgery. Her parents dreaded a third brain surgery, especially since Peyton’s dad and brother had to fly back to Omaha two days after arrival. Mrs. Holubeck would be alone to deal with Peyton’s third difficult recovery.
A doctor came to observe the fluid buildup. In a room full of nurses, family, and surgical residents, he said nothing. He paced slowly, looking at little Peyton’s neck, then walking back. He checked the fluid again, and walked back. Finally he spoke.
“I think it will be alright if we leave it,” the doctor said.
He checked if the fluid confined itself to the one area. It did. He called the radiation oncologist to see if the treatment could transfer through the patch. It could. Peyton would not need a third surgery.
“It’s literally the happiest day of my whole life,” Mrs. Holubeck said.
The overjoyed family asked Peyton where she wanted to go to eat. On the drive over, she saw a Denny’s.
“It was the best meal we’d ever had. Denny’s never tasted so good,” Mrs. Holubeck said.
Peyton spent nine weeks receiving treatment at St. Jude. There she met Marlo Thomas, Morgan Freeman, and many friends and volunteers.
“It is the happiest place on earth, even though some kids are sick and some are dying,” Mrs. Holubeck said.
After initial treatment, Peyton returned every few months to every year for check up visits. Mrs. Holubeck could never tell Peyton when they would return because she would ask every day if they could leave and go back. She spent time there with newfound friends, volunteers, and amazing nurses.
“Though you know your doctors, you really remember those nurses and you have a better connection with your nurses,” Holubeck said. “Ironically enough, (St. Jude) is still my favorite place to go. It’s such a bright, happy place. Not the stereotypical hospital in the slightest.”
Peyton is still cancer free twelve years later. However she lives with the effects of the cancer. In class, her brain processing power decreased, making it harder for her to learn and retain information. The cancer caused nystagmus, or a clicking motion in her eyes. This is common of people who are under the influence of alcohol, meaning Peyton must be extremely careful while she’s driving. And of course, her left ear hasn’t regained hearing. She has thought of becoming a deaf interpreter (a sign language translator for the deaf) due to her experience.
“I definitely do spend a lot of time thinking about the future and how I could do something to give back,” Peyton said.
Her whole family is grateful for the situation. Peyton is lucky to put this in her past. Even so, the family does not forget what happened. They attend fundraisers, awareness groups, and meet with other families in the same situation.
“I would never take it away. We’re all better in our family for what Peyton has lived. I think we’re all more compassionate,” Mrs. Holubeck said. “It makes you appreciate how kind people are and how good the world is. I would never take the experience away. I’m a better person because of it.”