Small, gregarious, brimming with boundless energy and a mischievous smile, 4-year-old Emmy Veenis is the type of kid people tend to remember. But Emmy started having headaches.
While they had only been happening for several days, their intensity went beyond what seemed normal. Emmy’s mother, Jenna Veenis, was concerned. So, on a Wednesday in April, she took Emmy to an emergency room in the Twin Cities. There she heard the words that would profoundly change the lives of every member of her family.
"Your daughter has a large mass in her brain. A tumor, that may be cancerous."
“It was like an out-of-body experience,” Veenis says. “My mind began running through every bleak outcome imaginable. What are the treatment options? Is my daughter going to die? For a moment, I forgot Emmy was in the room with me. She was only 4, but she knew what cancer was.”
A Family Connection Leads to ‘First Angel’
“We were alone in the waiting room for what seemed like an eternity,” Veenis says. “Emmy was crying and saying, ‘We can go home. I’ll be better, I’ll take naps. I don’t want them to take that thing out of my head.’”
Veenis’ husband was traveling back from a business trip. Not wanting to deliver the news over the phone, she reached out to Emmy’s aunt, Kaycee Torkelson, a nurse at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare.
“As Emmy’s aunt, hearing her diagnosis was very upsetting,” Torkelson says. “But the nurse part of me kicked in, and I immediately started thinking about ways to help.”
Knowing that Gillette nurse practitioner Teresa Schultz happened to be rounding at the same facility where Emmy and her mom were waiting, Torkelson instructed Veenis to request a consultation.
“Teresa really was our first angel,” Veenis recalls. “She came down right away, walked up to Emmy and said, ‘Hey, you’re sick, but we’re going to get you better.’ It was the first time I felt hopeful about our chances.”
A Lot Can Happen in a Few Hours
Veenis was soon joined by her husband, Torkelson and other extended family, and they decided to have Emmy transferred to Gillette.
“From the moment we walked into Gillette it was a 100 percent turnaround,” says Veenis. “Some of the staff had decorated Emmy’s bed, and there was a banner that said, ‘You’ve got this Emmy.’ It was a small thing, but feeling that support, it lifted a weight off our shoulders.”
The Veenis family met with pediatric neurosurgeon Patrick Graupman, MD, who explained that Emmy had a Juvenile Pilocytic Astrocytoma (JPA), a rare, golf ball-sized tumor located near the base of her brain. The tumor was blocking the flow of spinal fluid in Emmy’s brain, leading to a buildup that was causing her headaches and other symptoms.
“Dr. Graupman was a very calming presence,” Veenis says. “He told us to avoid speculating too much, and that we were going to figure this out.”
Surgery and Recovery
The next day, after receiving more detailed scans of Emmy’s brain, the Veenis family elected to move forward with surgery to remove the tumor. The surgery typically lasts 4-6 hours, and it was scheduled for the following morning.
On April 8, less than 72 hours after Emmy’s initial diagnosis, Graupman performed surgery, and successfully removed the entire tumor.
“We were elated,” Veenis says. “We were so happy we didn’t know what to say. Emmy’s grandfather asked Dr. Graupman when Emmy would get to play hockey again. Dr. Graupman responded, ‘Teach her chess this summer, we’ll talk about hockey in the winter.’ We couldn’t stop laughing.”
Emmy spent the next two weeks in the hospital before returning home. While there was a lot of good news, including that the tumor had been benign and would not require radiation, Emmy’s recovery was not without challenges. The Veenis’ noticed that she seemed more reticent and emotional, and wasn’t quite the same outgoing kid she was before the surgery.
“That was hard for everyone,” Veenis says. “But her doctors, nurses and therapists at Gillette really helped us through every step of Emmy’s recovery. We began to see these small steps of progress coming together.”
The Days are Long but the Years are Short
In the months following her surgery, Emmy continued to improve and is now getting back to being the active kid she once was. She recently turned 5, is swimming, taking golf lessons and started kindergarten this fall. The Veenis family credits the staff at Gillette—including Schultz, Torkelson and Graupman—for helping their family get to where they are today.
Emmy will have annual checkups at Gillette over the next 11 years due to the nature of her tumor. “That continuity, that cycle, is the most rewarding thing as a surgeon,” Graupman says. “I recently went to a former patient’s high school graduation. In a couple of years, I plan on going to one of Emmy’s hockey games.”