Every day, families turn to Levine Children's Hospital for the best pediatric specialty care in the region. And every year, the life-changing victories of our patients highlight the medical breakthroughs of our exceptional care teams.
Consistently recognized in multiple specialties as a Best Children's Hospital by U.S. News & World Report, we're proud to be named one of the nation's top hospitals once again.
Below, meet some of our patients and see how our top-rated, specialized care helped them be their best.
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~ Kate Van Poppel, MD, a pediatric neurologist and epileptologist
In the months that followed Ellie’s birth, she was a happy, healthy baby. But when the family took a trip to the beach, their storybook beginning took a frightening turn.
Ellie’s parents, Phillip and Christine Sisk, woke up to a strange sound in the middle of the night. Their daughter had a very high fever and was having a seizure. As they tried to bring down Ellie’s fever, they called an ambulance for help.
Ellie was taken to two hospitals in the span of a week before being airlifted to Levine Children’s Hospital. Doctors there made a life-changing diagnosis: Ellie had epilepsy.
Doctors initially thought she was having febrile seizures, which can be scary but are usually short-lasting and harmless. Epilepsy, on the other hand, is a neurological disorder that affects nerve cells in the central nervous system and can cause a lifetime of seizures, even loss of consciousness.
Doctors at Levine Children’s Hospital eventually controlled Ellie’s seizures with medications. But with her new epilepsy diagnosis, Ellie’s future was still uncertain.
Ellie was seen by Mark Van Poppel, MD, a pediatric neurosurgeon with Levine Children’s Hospital, and his wife, Kate Van Poppel, MD, a pediatric neurologist and epileptologist. Affectionately known as the “Van Poppel Dynamic Duo,” the husband-and-wife team set out to rid Ellie of her epilepsy.
Ellie’s seizures arose from a limited region of her brain – the temporal lobe. This temporal lobe epilepsy is the most common type of localized epilepsy in adults and children, and scarring of the temporal lobe is the most frequent cause. While most seizure disorders are controlled with medications, temporal lobe epilepsy is potentially treatable with surgery, and Ellie's body resisted medications as she got older.
“I knew from her very first visit that even if Ellie’s seizures were hard to control, we had the potential to cure her with surgery,” says Dr. Kate Van Poppel. “We noticed scarring in her temporal lobe early on, and then we found other abnormalities. But after about two years, when medications weren’t controlling her seizures, we decided to move forward with surgery.”
The Van Poppels, along with multiple specialists and fellow experts, worked for months to prepare for Ellie’s temporal lobectomy – complex surgery to remove the seizure-causing portion of her temporal lobe.
The procedure is one of the most effective treatment options for localized epilepsy – when it’s done right. To avoid disturbing important areas of the brain that control things like language or motor function, doctors use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to create an extremely detailed map all areas of the brain.
The precision paid off, and Ellie’s procedure was a success.
“The goal of the surgery essentially was to remove all of the tissue in her right temporal lobe that we suspected was causing her seizures, as well as the abnormality we identified on the MRI,” says Dr. Mark Van Poppel, who operated on Ellie. “From a surgical perspective and a functional standpoint, she is the same Ellie she was before surgery as after surgery.”
“Since her surgery in March, she’s done fantastic – not one single seizure,” says mom Christine. “She is full of life and fully recovered. It’s amazing how quickly she rebounded and we’re so grateful to everyone who helped give her life back.”
Ellie’s dad is grateful for his daughter’s regained life, too.
“When she was diagnosed, I remember thinking, ‘I’ll never get to buy her a first car’ – because if you have epilepsy, you can’t drive,” says Phillip. “But now she has that to look forward to and more – so I guess I better start saving for that car.”
~ Melanie Leitner, Ella Kate’s mom
As a parent, your child’s laughter can make all of your worries vanish in an instant.
So when 8-month-old Ella Kate broke out into tender giggles just days after a rare heart transplant surgery, it was a welcomed sign of hope for her family and all the doctors and nurses who helped save her life.
When Ella Kate was born, she didn’t breathe for eight minutes and was quickly airlifted to Carolinas HealthCare System’s Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte.
Hours later, her parents learned their newborn daughter might not survive because of tumors found throughout her tiny, walnut-sized heart.
But the feisty little girl did survive. And a team of doctors began a months-long journey to keep Ella Kate alive. After ruling out cancer, focus shifted to treating Ella Kate’s failing heart.
Ella Kate’s health continued to get worse and doctors agreed a heart transplant was her only hope of survival. She was added to the transplant waiting list on November 29, 2016.
“We enjoyed Christmas at home, but we were very ready for her new heart,” says Melanie Leitner, Ella Kate’s mom. “Then, one Sunday morning at church, the pastor asked the congregation to pray for us because Ella Kate was not doing well.”
On the way home, the Leitners got the phone call they’d been waiting for: A heart had become available.
In the US, about 450 pediatric heart transplants take place each year and only 10 percent of children 2 and younger can accept hearts from all blood types.
“Ella Kate was fortunate to be among that 10 percent, and this opened the door for us to perform the first pediatric ABO-incompatible heart transplant surgery in our hospital's history,” says Ella Kate’s doctor, Gonzalo Wallis, MD, a pediatric cardiologist and director of the heart failure program at Levine Children’s Hospital.
This type of heart transplant was a first for Levine’s Children's Hospital and Thomas Maxey, a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon.
“When we allowed blood to flow back into her heart, my anxiety was higher compared to our previous heart transplants,” says Dr. Maxey. “Thankfully, it was a success and she was out of the pediatric cardiovascular intensive care unit in a couple of days.”
Ella Kate continues to make great progress and doctors expect the fashionista-in-training to have a healthy future. Mom and dad describe their chubby-cheeked little girl as full of life, but say she shines especially bright when playing dress up.
~ Julie Wallace, Jacob’s mom
Jacob was born a healthy baby. But just a few short years later, everything changed.
At 3, he developed nephrotic syndrome – a kidney disorder that causes your body to lose too much protein in your urine. He wasn’t responding to medications, and by the time he turned 4, he was in kidney failure.
“Jacob was coming in at least once a week or every other week for infusions of that protein he was losing in his urine,” says Susan Massengill, MD, a pediatric nephrologist at Levine Children’s Hospital. “By the time he started dialysis, he was on 18 medications.”
He was listed for transplant, and received a new kidney at age 5. Two years later, he developed post-transplant lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that sometimes develops in transplant patients. To start chemotherapy treatment, he was forced to stop taking his transplant medications.
A year later, his body began rejecting the organ. To save the kidney, doctors decided to put him back on the transplant medicines – a delicate balance given the danger of the lymphoma returning.
To their delight, he did well. “He flew through his chemo,” recalls Dr. Massengill. “And he kept that kidney for 10 years, which is just incredible.”
Years went by with no major issues. But when Jacob was about 15, he started to have chronic rejection of his donated kidney – a normal process in donated organs as they simply start to break down.
“It’s a slower process than acute rejection, but when it happens, there’s not much you can do,” says his mother, Julie Wallace. “At that point, we knew he’d have to have another transplant.”
This time, it was Julie who donated a kidney to her son. Even as a biological mother, there are no guarantees that organs will be a match, so it was a six-month testing process to determine that she was, in fact, a perfect match for him.
“Being an organ donor is mind-blowing,” Julie says. “But it’s also scary, and there’s lots of fear. What if it doesn’t work? What if my kidney makes him even sicker?”
Fortunately, it didn’t, and the transplant was a success.
“He’s never skipped a beat,” says Dr. Massengill. “He’s like an energizer bunny – he just keeps on going with an incredibly positive attitude.”
One of the things that made Jacob’s case a success was the collaboration between departments at Levine Children’s Hospital.
“It’s all about teamwork,” Dr. Massengill says. “Teamwork among our nephrology group, the dialysis team and transplant staff. During Jacob’s oncology treatment, there was tremendous coordination with the oncology team. Later, he needed the immunology team to help combat his susceptibility to infections from the chemotherapy and transplant medications he required.”
After a harrowing journey, Jacob’s family is forever grateful for the care they received from Dr. Massengill and the team at Levine Children’s Hospital.
“Dr. Massengill has been a second mom to Jacob and has been like a sister to me,” Julie says. “She’s the only other human besides my husband that I trust with my son. Jacob doesn’t believe that he’d be alive without her. I don’t either.”
And despite his abnormal upbringing, Julie says there’s a special light in her son.
“Everyone who knows Jacob sees him as the most joyful kid,” she says. “He refuses to live his life as a sick person. He shines so brightly.”
Jacob did his senior project on the importance of maintaining a positive attitude while growing up with a chronic illness. Dr. Massengill served as his mentor. Now 19, Jacob is headed to college to pursue degrees in communications and theater, with hopes of one day working in the film industry.
“I think the best part of my job is being able to follow these patients and their families through the years as they grow,” Dr. Massengill says. “You see them during their struggles, but mostly during all their triumphs.
The Pediatric Nephrology Center of Excellence at Levine Children’s Hospital is currently doing research with other institutions to find a cure for nephrotic syndrome. While they won’t be able to find a 100 percent cure, Dr. Massengill says that even a partial cure will be a huge win, and could prevent kids from going into kidney failure.
"Dealing with nephrotic syndrome and seeing the struggle that these families face daily inspires me to work that much harder at trying to find a cure for this disease but to also lessen the burden of chronic disease,” she says.
~ Tobias, spine surgery patient
Tobias has always loved to move. But when he caught the dancing bug as a teen, things really took off.
"Dancing just comes naturally to me," says Tobias Wilson, 17. "It’s a good way to clear your mind, get stress out of the way, and express how you feel."
He started taking dance more seriously, practicing and getting better. He danced for fun, entered competitions – even appeared in music videos.
But at a routine pediatrician visit one day, his doctor noticed something was wrong with his spine.
"When I bent down, she said my spine was off center," says Tobias.
Doctors soon diagnosed Tobias with scoliosis, a condition where the spine is curved. He and his mom headed to Levine Children’s Hospital to find out what he could do – and how having scoliosis might affect his future.
"With the size of his curve and the chance that it would get worse over time, we discussed options and decided the best choice was for him to have surgery," says pediatric orthopedic surgeon Brian Scannell, MD, who cared for Tobias at Levine Children’s Hospital.
Tobias says he was scared when he found out he needed surgery. But he and his mom made the decision to move forward.
"Dancing is my dream," he says. "I wasn’t going to let this stop me."
The doctors took extra care to make sure his surgery wouldn’t limit the teen’s movement. "Being a dancer, that was really important for him," says Dr. Scannell. "He didn’t want to lose a lot of that motion because that would affect his ‘moves.’"
The surgery was a success. Over the new few months, Tobias recovered and went to physical therapy. Soon, he was strong enough to start dancing again.
"I was so happy when Dr. Scannell gave me the OK," he says. "I was ready to get back on my feet."
These days, Tobias is back to dancing, competing and having fun. “Getting back to dancing has been amazing," he says. "I’m feeling really good."
~ Allison Cowherd, Parker’s mom
On the outside, eight-year-old Parker’s infectious smile, natural charisma and sense of humor instantly grab your attention. On the inside, however, his body is fighting a rare, cancerous tumor in his brain and spine.
It’s called a diffuse leptomeningeal glioneuronal tumor, and only a handful of cases have been documented worldwide, says Chad Jacobsen, MD, the neuro-oncologist at Levine Children’s Hospital leading Parker’s treatment.
“Because Parker’s tumor is so rare and can’t be removed surgically, there is no standard course of treatment,” says Dr. Jacobsen. “We had to spend a lot of time contemplating his disease and reviewing what little is known about it to come up with our own unique plan for him – and that’s what we did.”
When Parker turned 18 months old, his parents Jon and Allison Cowherd noticed he had trouble moving his left hand. Doctors initially diagnosed Parker with spastic cerebral palsy, but Parker’s conditioned progressed – something cerebral palsy isn’t known to do.
“So, in 2015 we went to see a neurologist, who performed another MRI and found a tumor on his spinal column that likely had been there since birth, causing his condition,” says Allison.
Parker was quickly admitted to Levine Children’s Hospital, where he met Dr. Jacobsen, who began to monitor the little boy and develop a game plan to treat his rare cancer.
“It was definitely a few scary days of waiting in the hospital,” says Allison. “He’d always dealt with his left-hand weakness so well, so we never thought it could be something more serious.”
But it was.
Dr. Jacobsen first tried to manage Parker’s tumor with a regimen of chemotherapy drugs. When those medicines no longer worked, he switched to another chemotherapy regimen.
Despite enduring two forms of chemotherapy over the course of 17 months, Parker kept his friends, family and his care team laughing with his witty personality. In May, he finished his last planned chemotherapy treatment and his tumor continues to show no signs of growth.
“He’s doing great,” says Dr. Jacobsen. “But we have to keep him under close observation because there’s a chance the tumor could progress. Still, we couldn’t be more proud of how our neurosurgery, oncology and neuroradiology teams pooled their expertise to manage Parker’s rare tumor.”
The Cowherd family’s experience has inspired them to start Pounding for Parker Foundation, a nonprofit that helps fund research efforts to advance treatment options for rare pediatric cancers.
“We know there’s something out there that can help kids like Parker – we just have to find out what it is,” says Allison.
Parker says his visit to Camp Care will definitely be a highlight of his summer. This will be Parker’s second year attending the weeklong camp for Charlotte-area children and families affected by cancer.
“He’s had to grow up a lot faster than most kids, and he knows it’s not fair, but he just takes it all in stride,” says Allison. “It’s our hope that the tumor goes dormant, but no matter what happens, we feel so fortunate to have such a great team – right here in our backyard – that can adapt and do whatever needs to be done to give Parker the best care.”
The avid sports fan also is looking forward to family trips to the beach and mountains with his younger brother, Owen – and continuing to joke around with his friends and family, of course.
~ Andrea Sanchez, David’s mom
For some people, illness comes gradually. For others, like 9-year-old David, it happens frighteningly fast.
In the fall of 2016, David was rushed to the emergency room because he had severe stomach pains and trouble swallowing. After being transferred to Levine Children’s Hospital, doctors determined the young boy’s liver was failing – and only a transplant would save his life.
“We discovered that David had Wilson’s disease, a genetic disorder that causes too much copper to accumulate in liver and other organs,” says Vani Gopalareddy, MD, pediatric gastroenterology and hepatology specialist at Levine Children’s Hospital.
Because of David’s life-or-death situation, he was moved to the top of the wait list to receive an organ and the team at Levine Children’s Hospital had to work fast.
“Dr. Gopalareddy and the rest of team worked so quickly, but thoroughly, and they didn’t miss anything about his diagnosis,” says Mary Alice Boulware, a pediatric nurse practitioner and David’s liver transplant coordinator.
“Four days after David was admitted to the emergency room, my husband and I were called in to sign the transplant papers and have them explained to us,” says Andrea Sanchez, David’s mother. “I couldn’t sign because of the pain in my heart, but my husband had the courage to do it.”
In a matter of hours, the team diagnosed David with acute liver failure, found him a donor organ and completed his transplant within 4 days after admission to the intensive care unit.
“Our team has been extremely fortunate because once we have a child listed for a transplant, we haven’t waited more than three months for an organ,” says Dr. Gopalareddy. “And for David, getting him a new liver as soon as possible was a matter of life and death.”
After six harrowing hours in surgery, his transplant was a success. A week later, David was discharged.
“He couldn’t wait to get home and be with his family, especially his two sisters,” says Andrea. “Now, he’s back to being the energetic and playful boy he was before the illness. Looking at him, you’d never know he was sick.”
Andrea says the gratitude her family has for the team at Levine Children’s Hospital is immeasurable.
“They are all amazing,” she says. “And every step of the way, they were taking care of all of us during a painful and scary time.”
But without an organ donor, David’s story would’ve had a different outcome.
“This experience has taken a big toll on our family, but it also has taught us to share more hugs and kisses and to cherish each moment more,” says Andrea. “David survived because someone helped him survive. And we are so thankful for that.”
Doctors expect David to have a healthy future and they say the rising football star should have no trouble fulfilling his dream of becoming a star quarterback.