The Faces of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Get to know four patients from Atlanta's premier pediatric hospital
As a parent, there is nothing more frightening than having a sick or injured child. Fortunately, for parents in the metro area, there’s Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Comprised of three hospitals at Egleston, Scottish Rite and Hughes Spalding, as well as the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, the Marcus Autism Center, 26 neighborhood locations and more, this award-winning and distinguished pediatric provider offers specialized care to more than half a million children and teens annually. Children’s has been named one of the country’s top pediatric hospitals by U.S. News & World Report and received a host of additional accolades. Yet, the best way to truly understand the impact that Children’s has on the families of metro Atlanta is by seeing its work in action. Here, KNOWAtlanta Magazine shares the stories of four young patients and the care they have received from one of the nation’s most acclaimed pediatric hospital systems.
Claire Kitchens, 12
It was June of 2010, and 3-year-old Claire Kitchens had just been diagnosed with a large tumor located on her spine, which was affecting her aorta. The doctors at Children’s only knew of two cases that had ever presented like hers, as the tumor had not metastasized and was not attached to any major organs. However, its markers were unfavorable, and the Aflac team had to approach her diagnosis as Stage 2 aggressive cancer. Claire had six rounds of high-dose chemotherapy to shrink the tumor and surgery to remove it at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite; she followed that up with radiation, a stem cell transplant and antibody therapy at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston, for a total of 18 months of treatment.
“Our experience was top-notch, in particular with the Aflac team of doctors and nurses,” explains Nadjia Kitchens, Claire’s mother. “The nurses—I would not have survived without them. When you’re in this situation, you’re always problem solving. And the nurses were so on top of her care, always thinking ahead for me. I can’t say enough about them.”
Of course, the effects of a tumor like the one Claire had are cumulative, and, while she remains cancer free since her surgery in 2010, doctors knew that there was a chance her growth plates would be damaged over time. When she hit puberty and had a growth spurt, their suspicions came to fruition: Claire, now 12, began leaning over, and within a year’s time, her back was at a 70 percent curve. That number escalated quickly to an 87 percent curve. Her medical team waited as long as possible to intervene, but in September of 2019, Claire was back in surgery with orthopedic surgeon Dennis P. Devito, MD, to correct the issue. A minor complication during the surgery caused her to need inpatient spinal cord rehab for just over a week, but she came out of the experience quickly and received a very good prognosis. She even returned to school full time not long later. And Nadjia could not be more grateful for the care that her daughter—and their entire family—has received over the years at Children’s.
“The staff at Children’s really does care about you and your child. Your whole family. You feel genuinely cared for,” she says. “And as crazy as it sounds, my child loves the hospital. At Children’s, the experience is fun. Everything is light. You can be dealing with cancer, but you’re still allowed to be a child. Joy and happiness really do surround everything in that hospital.”
Joseph Morris, 11
According to Kerry Morris, her son Joseph was a normal 5 year old who loved to run and jump. He raced. He climbed everything. But something changed one day. He began complaining about his hip and knee hurting. His pediatrician said that his kneecap was just a bit tight and recommended that Joseph stay off of it for about a week. But that didn’t seem to help. He had trouble playing baseball. A student of Tai Kwon Do, he couldn’t do his splits or kicks anymore. And it took him nearly an hour after waking to begin walking normally each day. Then, while watching him play during recess one day, Kerry noticed that her son, who had always been the fastest kid on the playground, was dragging his leg behind him.
Kerry and James, Joseph’s father, were referred to an orthopedic physician who specializes in sports medicine. After an x-ray, the doctor still could not see anything wrong with Joseph. So they were then sent to Dana Olszewski, MD, a pediatric orthopedic specialist in the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta network. The couple, who live in Sylvester, Georgia, made the five-hour trip north to Marietta with Joseph.
“She had him walk for her, and she just knew,” Kerry explains of Joseph’s diagnosis of Legg-Calve-Perthes, a rare childhood disease in which blood supply to the femoral part of the hip is interrupted and the bone begins to die. “You lose blood flow to the ball part of the joint. The bone then flakes off, and the body absorbs it,” James adds. “Then it’s a regrowth process, which can take one to four years.”
The main treatment for Legg-Calve-Perthes is actually rest and monitoring. If it gets worse, though, a young patient may have to have surgery or be placed in a full leg cast to immobilize the bottom portion of the body. Though it was difficult, Joseph adhered to the doctor’s recommendations and refrained from any activities that would cause major impact on his hip. And Kerry attributes that to his connection with Olszewski, whom he saw twice a week in Stockbridge for several years. “He didn’t like [not being able to run and play], but he respected her and listened to her,” she notes. “As the years went on, he got better and better.”
Now 11, Joseph, who never required surgery or a cast, is back to his active self, winning Tai Kwon Do medals and playing a range of sports. “It was serious, and the guidance needed to be followed strictly,” James states. Kerry agrees, concluding, “When you go to Children’s, be prepared to listen and do whatever they tell you. They know what they’re talking about. And they care. You and your child are not just a number. We wouldn’t recommend any other pediatric orthopedic [provider]. At Children’s, you are in very good hands.”
Gabriella Evans, 4
For four days in a row last year, 4-year-old Gabriella Evans complained of a headache. She also experienced vomiting and was extremely weak and lethargic. But her symptoms only appeared in the morning. Her parents, Kevin and Ashley, had taken her to an urgent care facility, where the onsite physician told them it was a virus and discharged Gabriella. “My mommy heart didn’t agree, so I took her to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta ER because I knew we would receive the best care possible,” Ashley recalls. And her intuition could not have been more right.
After checking Gabriella in, getting her vitals and labs and giving her a CT scan, the ER doctor delivered the news Ashley never expected to hear: Gabriella was diagnosed as having a large tumor on her brain. She immediately was admitted to the pediatric ICU, sedated and given an MRI to get better imaging of the tumor. The result revealed that she had a Juvenile Pilocytic Astrocytoma of Cerebellum tumor, as well as Hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the cavities deep within the brain. It was a massive, slow-growing tumor, and the doctors were not sure how long she had it. But they were able to explain that she only had symptoms in the morning because of the buildup of fluid in her brain throughout each night. Fortunately, the tumor was benign—although it would require an eight-hour surgery to remove it.
During her craniotomy, Gabriella had to receive a blood transfusion, but the surgery was a success. Of course, post-surgery, she required an EVD brain drain and had to stay in the hospital for three weeks for inpatient physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and more. In October, she had follow-up Strabismus surgery to correct a misalignment in both eyes caused by the tumor and its removal. Yet through it all, Gabriella and her family had complete faith in Children’s.
“We had the best experience for the worst days of our lives,” Ashely says. “We were able to focus on our daughter knowing we had the best doctors, nurses and staff taking care of everything else.”
Nearly 10 months after her surgery, Gabriella is doing exceptionally well. She had no signs of the tumor during her six-month MRI scans, and she continues to attend therapy sessions three days a week. She must have sedated MRIs every three months to ensure that the tumor remains at bay, but she has been able to return to her normal activities. And though it was a terribly frightening and difficult time, the Evans family is grateful to the hospital for the care it was able to provide to Gabriella.
“[The staff aren’t] just employees for a large company who show up for work. They are the most caring people you will ever meet,” Ashley says. “To say they went above and beyond making us feel comfortable is an understatement.”
Will Walker, 14
It’s hard to believe, but at only 14 years old, Will Walker has had two kidney transplants. It all began in December of 2017 when, during his annual physical, his pediatrician recognized that Will had stopped growing. His height and weight had not changed in two years. Will was sent to a gastrointestinal specialist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta with the thought that he might have a digestive issue that was keeping his body from absorbing nutrients. But that was ruled out. A team of doctors at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center then ruled out any form of cancer. And as they continued to search for answers, they soon realized that Will was in renal failure.
“We were coming out of the grocery store, and they called and said come back now. We went back and found that his kidney had less than 10 percent function. He was only 12 at the time,” says his mother Jenn Walker. “And it’s genetic. No one in our family has kidney disease—but it’s just the roll of the dice.”
To figure out the next steps, Jenn was told to take him to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston and then Scottish Rite. “They gave us about a year. He had to have a transplant,” Jenn recalls. Will’s medical team did everything they could to keep him from having to go on dialysis and placed him on the transplant list. Family members got tested to see if they could be a match as a living donor, and Jenn discovered that she was. She prepared herself to donate a kidney to Will, but in January of 2019, she received word that the hospital had a kidney from a deceased donor for Will. He received the kidney transplant on February 1. But on February 2, he developed a blood clot that halted blood flow to the kidney, and it had to be removed. It felt like a crushing blow, and Will had to be placed on dialysis.
Several months later, the doctors decided that they would be able to move forward with another transplant. This time, though, it would come from a living donor: Mary Jo Jewett, the Walkers’ neighbor. While Jenn was ready once again to donate herself, Jewett had been tested as well and offered to donate her kidney. Will and Jewett’s daughters had formed a friendship when they moved into the neighborhood, and she wanted to help him. In late June, the nephrology team completed Will’s second kidney transplant. “It is in there, and it’s happy. And he is stable. He’s like a different kid,” Jenn notes.
Of course, Will remains a patient at Children’s to follow his progress. And because living donor kidneys last approximately 12 to 15 years, he undoubtedly will have to have more transplants over the course of his life. But Jenn knows that her son is in the best care possible at Children’s.
“You can tell just how much they care and how personal it is for them. These kids are their kids—that’s what they call them. And they include the parents to give it a family feel,” she concludes. “When you go to Children’s, trust them. Every person in that building wants the best for your kid.”