Makayla's Miracle

This is the story of a family that would not give up and a Chicago surgeon willing to take a chance.

The odds were against 2-year-old Makayla Dillon of New Orleans. She had a tumor deep in her abdomen described as the size of a volleyball. Removing it would be risky. But leaving the tumor could also be fatal. Makayla has beaten the odds before. Her parents wanted just one more miracle.

it was 2005 and the fury of Hurricane Katrina rained down on New Orleans. Marquita Waites was one of thousands to escape the storm only to be trapped in a convention center. She lost most of her belongings, was 8 months' pregnant, sleeping on the floor and worried she might lose the baby.

" I was about to have her the night of the storm. I had contractions but it stopped," said Waites.

Makayla was born a month later. Her parents say she was easygoing, active and healthy. But as she started to grow, her family noticed her stomach didn't look like that of a typical toddler. Doctors found a massive tumor in her abdomen and diagnosed her with neuroblastoma.

"I cried and cried and cried," said Waites.

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that often begins in early childhood. It develops in nerve tissue of the adrenal gland, neck chest or spinal cord.

Susan Cohn is a pediatric oncologist at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

"Some children with neuroblastoma unfortunately still die, despite very intensive therapy," said Cohn.

Makaylah went through months of chemo and radiation, but the stubborn mass was not going away. The tumor was intertwined among major arteries and organs. Surgery could be fatal but it offered a chance. Waiting meant almost certain death. Specialists in Louisiana told the family there was nothing they could do.

"She's all I have left. I wasn't going to take no for an answer. I was going to find someone to do it," said Waites.

That someone was hundreds of miles away at the Comer Children's Hospital in Chicago. An oncologist in New Orleans helped Waites track down Dr. Donald Liu. The surgeon had taken on difficult cases before and was determined to try to find a way to help Makayla.

"This is a tough one, and when I looked at it, and I thought about it… I thought that this is something we could try and have reasonable success," said Liu.

Dr. Liu was worried the cancer might have spread. Once inside, the medical team was thrilled to find the surrounding organs were OK.

"At that point, I said, 'We've got to go for this. I mean this is her chance. That's why she is here. Let's do it,'" said Liu.

For five painstaking hours, the medical team carefully cut apart the stubborn tumor, being aware the whole time that one incorrect move could end her life. Their diligence and determination paid off.

A few days later, Makayla was playing along with the hospital clowns, oblivious that her fight with cancer may be over for good. The surgery was a success, and doctors say she appears to be cancer free thanks to a family that wouldn't take no for an answer and a doctor who was willing to take a chance.

Now her father says she may actually have a chance to grow up and realize her dreams. Today, it's to become a runway model.

"Keep looking. Don't take no for an answer. No, never give up. There's always hope," said Willie Dillon, father.

Makayla and her family are back home in New Orleans. They say life is finally back to normal. But doctors will keep a close eye on her and watch for any complications.

Children's Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation

Donald C. Liu, MD, PhD
Mary Campau Ryerson Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics
Surgeon in Chief

Office Phone
(773) 702-6175
Office Fax
(773) 702-1192
Office Postal Address
Donald Liu, MD, PhD
University of Chicago Medical Center
5841 S. Maryland Avenue, MC 4062
Chicago, IL 60637

Susan Cohn, MD
Professor of Pediatrics Pediatric Hematology-Oncology
Stem cell transplantation
Solid tumors
Office Phone
(773) 702-2571
Office Fax
(773) 834-1329
Office Postal Address
Susan L. Cohn, MD
University of Chicago Hospitals
5841 S. Maryland Avenue
MC 4060, Rm N114
Chicago, IL 60637
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