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Update: Belize girl recovering after life-saving surgery in Knoxville

9:10 AM, Apr 14, 2012   |    comments
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A little girl from Belize is recovering from life-saving surgery in Knoxville.

Catarina Ishim underwent nearly 20 hours of surgery to have a large, cancerous tumor removed from her face.

She got out of surgery around 3 a.m. Saturday and was listed in serious condition.

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Catarina Ishim's story has captured the attention of the country of Belize. 

The 11-year-old has been battling a cancerous tumor for a year and a half, and that battle has led her to Knoxville.

"She'll die soon if she doesn't get this off," said Dr. Rick Glover, a Knoxville pediatrician who worked with the Morristown-based ministry, Hearts of Christ, to bring Catarina to the United States.

Back in October 2010, the tumor began growing out of the left side of the little girl's face. It grew to the size of a golf ball before she had it removed, but the tumor continued to grow.

It was the size of an apple the second time she had surgery in August 2011. But, two months later, it was growing again. Her story had gained attention across the country of Belize, and several ministries and others raised money for her surgeries, but eventually, that money ran out, and so did the medical options for her in Belize.

Nonetheless, she was set for her third surgery in Belize March 29. That same morning, Dr. Glover got word that she could get help in Knoxville. So, he made the call.

"She was actually in the operating room when they got the call, so they took her back out of the operating room, and she probably would have died if she had that surgery there," Dr. Glover said. "They would do all they could, but this is just such a large tumor that she probably would have bled to death just from all the blood loss."

Catarina was in Knoxville the very next night, and the preparation for her surgery began.

It would take a number of doctors, surgeons and other to make it happen, along with the support of East Tennessee Children's Hospital and the UT Medical Center.

After a doctor spent 11 hours cutting off most of the blood supply to the tumor on Thursday, the marathon surgery began early Friday morning.

Dr. John Little, an ear, nose an throat surgeon at Children's Hospital, was at the helm.

"In Catarina's case, it's specially, probably for me personally, I've got a 10-year-old little girl, and she's 11, so you say, if my little girl had this, I'd want somebody doing whatever they could to help," he said. 

After seven hours, Dr. Little had removed the tumor, which had grown to the size of a small watermelon and weighed between eight and ten pounds.

"It was a sad surgery, but it was a very good surgery," he said. "Things went really well today."

Around 3 p.m., Dr. Little handed off to Dr. Kathleen Herbig, a plastic surgeon who specializes in microsurgery at UT Medical Center, where the marathon surgery took place.

"It's kind of a one-time shot, so we need to see what we can do for her and just give her the best chance she has," Dr. Herbig said.

Catarina was set to lose her left eye, entire nose and part of her mouth during the surgery, but the goal was to get rid of any sign of cancer.

"She'll never really have a normal appearance after this," Dr. Herbig said. "The idea is, one, of course, Dr. Little is trying to get the cancer removed, and then, two, I'm there to try to cover up all the vital structures to try to give her what we call oral competence and reconstruct the mouth so hopefully, later on, she can eat again."

Catarina's surgery was expected to last into the early hours of Saturday morning. She'll spend several days recovering in Children's Hospital after that.

She is the 10th child Dr. Glover has helped to bring to the U.S. for treatment since he first started his missionary work ten years ago.

It all began with another little girl from Belize, named Faith. She was born prematurely with a tumor on her spine.

She ultimately did not survive, but she made a huge impact on Dr. Glover, who renamed his practice "Children's Faith Pediatrics" in honor of her.

The "Faith Welch Fund" also was set up at Children's to help other patients get the care they needed.

However, the fund was depleted after the previous care of an Iraqi girl in 2006. And so, Catarina's surgery was a truly a volunteer effort by the many people involved.

"It doesn't always work out and we don't get to help all of them, and that does hurt, that's the hard part of all this, but when we do and we're able to help, and we can't make it all perfect, but we can make their life incredibly better, and in this case, probably save her life, I don't see how anybody could not do that," Dr. Glover said.

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