Eathan the Brave

Friendship with facility dog inspires recovery

Eathan Freeman is not shy about introducing himself.

“Hi, I’m Eathan, also known as Spider-Man!”

The 8-year-old Portsmouth boy recently strolled confidently down the hall at CHKD, gave a hug to a child life specialist, and stopped to chat with nurses. He took a moment to show off his muscles by flexing his biceps.

Kidstuff_Eathan the Brave_Eathan 1If Eathan acts like he owns the place, there’s a reason. He spent a month here as a baby to have surgery to treat a cyst in his brain and another month last September for repair of a shunt that takes fluid from his brain to his belly.

That’s when he earned a superhero title – “Eathan the Brave” – from nurses and child life specialists who introduced him to CHKD’s facility dog, SaraLee.

"Come on, SaraLee, come dance with me," he said when he saw the sandy-haired dog in the hallway. “She took good care of me,” he explained. “She helped me walk by getting me out of bed.”

Eathan’s story with CHKD began before he was born. That’s when Katrinia Freeman, his mother, had an ultrasound that showed Eathan had a cyst – a sac filled with fluid – in his brain.

It was causing a buildup of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. The condition is called hydrocephalus, and the pressure can cause headaches, vision problems, confusion, developmental delays, and difficulty walking.

Katrinia was referred to Dr. John Birknes, a pediatric neurosurgeon at CHKD. He showed Katrinia and Eathan’s father, Sean Nash, a model of a brain to point out where the cyst was located, the various options to treat it, and the range of possible results.

The cyst continued to grow, and not long after that, Katrinia had an emergency Cesarean section to deliver Eathan, who was immediately transferred to CHKD.

When Katrinia was wheeled from Sentara Norfolk General Hospital to CHKD to see Eathan, the first person she saw was Dr. Birknes. She felt a sense of relief.

“He’s always been there for us.”

The cyst caused Eathan’s head to be larger than a normal baby’s, and his eyes bulged out a little and seemed to dart around. “But he was beautiful,” Katrinia remembers, “He had a head full of hair, and he was my baby.”

Dr. Birknes and his team performed surgery to drain the cyst, and later inserted a catheter to drain fluid from the brain to a shunt that would carry it past his ear, across his collarbone, to his belly where the fluid would be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Dr. Birknes said his philosophy is to explain a condition honestly, simply, fully, and in the way he’d want to be told if this were his child.

“I would want to know what the truth is,” Dr. Birknes said. “I don’t want it watered down or sugar-coated. I’ll even tell them, ‘I’m telling you what I’d want to be told. If it’s not a good message, it’s not because I don’t care, it’s because I’m being honest.’ ”

Eathan spent a month recovering and growing in the NICU, during which time CHKD nurses, therapists, chaplains, social workers, and child life specialists gathered around to support Eathan and his family.

For instance, before his brothers, Gabriel and Julian, saw Eathan for the first time, a NICU nurse prepared them by saying that Eathan looked different from other babies, and he was in a unit with other special babies who had tubes and monitors all around them.

“So … he’s like a superhero?” his brother asked.

The cyst and fluid buildup came with other diagnoses for Eathan – a seizure disorder, a hormone deficiency, and vision problems. After discharge, he’d need physical therapy, occupational therapy, and monitoring of the shunt by neurology specialists, along with regular visits to his endocrinologist and his pediatrician.

Case managers with CHKD’s Care Connection for Children would help manage those appointments.

It wasn’t long before the best part of his development surfaced – his personality.

“He’s so outgoing,” Katrinia said. “He’s always been strong. He’s like a little adult. Full of life. Always a fighter. He’s my bundle of joy.”

That’s why she knew something was wrong last September when Eathan’s outgoing personality faded. He was tired and sleepy. He had headaches. He lost his appetite. “When he was awake, he was in tears, saying that he was in pain,” Katrinia said.

He was admitted to CHKD. The first time child life manager Shannon Hood saw him he was sleeping with the lights off. She came in hoping to get Eathan up and walking. His doctor and healthcare providers wanted to check his balance and mobility to help figure out whether he needed surgery to fix the shunt that had been inserted in his brain.

Hood couldn’t get any response from Eathan, so she asked his mom, “Does he like dogs?”

Before Katrinia said anything, Hood had her answer: Eathan opened his eyes.

Hood said she’d bring CHKD’s facility dog, SaraLee, to his bedside, and he could pet her. And, if he got out of bed, he could even walk her.

The deal was struck, and Eathan’s signature heart-warming smile surfaced again. He sat up on the edge of his bed, rubbed the dog’s soft ears. He stood up, and walked by SaraLee’s side.

That assessment along with other tests showed signs of a shunt malfunction. “Mom, I’m sorry to say we’re going to need to do surgery to see what’s going on,” Dr. Birknes said.

“You have never steered us wrong,” Katrinia said.

Sure enough, the catheter in the brain was clogged, which would take additional surgery to repair.

Throw into that equation this quandary: Eathan’s birthday was coming up.

No one wants to spend their birthday in the hospital, and for that reason, child life specialists keep track of patient birthdays, talk with parents, and make sure there’s a celebration crafted to the child’s favorite things.

In Eathan’s case, superheroes immediately came to mind.

Spider-Man and Captain America superheroes showed up in their full regalia on his special day to wish Eathan a happy birthday. Local companies donated superhero toys, a bouquet of balloons, trinkets, and superhero posters. Twisted Sisters Cupcakes created a cake in the shape of a character from one of Eathan’s favorite shows, the PAW Patrol.

“I ate his whole entire nose,” Eathan remembers.

Eathan stayed in the pediatric intensive care unit after his surgeries, then returned to the 7th floor for further recovery.

Hood would put the dog between the two of them – she calls it a “SaraLee sandwich” – to walk around the rehab unit. “OK, we’re going to walk super confidently,” she’d say. “Walk with purpose. Relax your hands. Look straight ahead.”

Soon, Eathan left behind a wheelchair, then a walker. His impish smile and upbeat attitude returned.

Today, Katrinia credits Dr. Birknes with saving Eathan’s life, and the entire CHKD village with lifting his spirits and restoring his spunk.

“He’s a funny guy,” Eathan said of Dr. Birknes. “He tells me knock-knock jokes.” Dr. Birknes also has been known to break into song to distract Eathan from a procedure that might be uncomfortable.

Katrinia has a video in which she captured Dr. Birknes belting out a song. Eathan yells, “Stop singing!” but laughs in spite of himself.

In turn, Dr. Birknes appreciates Eathan’s spirit:

“There’s absolutely nothing that takes away from his personality.”

Learn more about CHKD's neurosurgery program here. This story appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of Kidstuff magazine, a quarterly publication from CHKD that features inspiring stories about patients, families, physicians and friends of CHKD. Make a donation to receive Kidstuff magazine by mail.