From Brain Surgery to the Ball Field: The Luck of a Teen Athlete

High school star pitcher Cameron Hall plays hard and gets hurt. Bad news, right? Not exactly.

By Michael Rosenwald from Reader's Digest | November 2009

Cameron Hall is injury-prone. “Everything he does is full tilt, and he gets hurt all the time,” says his father, Phil. Cameron is also a teenager. The combination of unstoppable energy and teenage thoughtlessness has led to some harrowing moments for his parents, especially on athletic fields. “When I play sports, I don’t think,” Cameron says. “I just do.” The summer before his senior year of high school, his propensity for injury saved his life.

A Teens Bad Luck Finds a Tumor Just in TimePHOTOGRAPHED BY TAMARA REYNOLDS

On a hot August day, the kind of afternoon that only kids find perfect for strenuous activity, Cameron collected 20 friends for a touch football game at a park near his home outside Atlanta. A star pitcher for his high school baseball team, the 18-year-old was scheduled to play in a showcase tournament the next day. College scouts would be there, making final decisions on scholarships. Cameron knew his father wouldn’t want him playing football the day before the scouting. But Phil, 57, a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, was out of town on business.

Halfway into the game, Cameron had another idea his dad would have vetoed. Bored with touch football, he asked the guys, “Do you all just wanna play tackle?” And teenagers being teenagers, the boys instantly said yes. A few plays later, Jacob Beauchamp, Cameron’s friend since age four, jumped up to catch a pass. Cameron ran hard to tackle him, hitting Jacob in the legs—with his head. Cameron fell down but quickly got up. “We were like, ‘Oh, good hit,’ ” Jacob says.

But then Cameron collapsed. He lay on the grass, unconscious, bleeding from his ear; in the 20 seconds before he came to, his friends thought he was dead. One boy carried Cameron to a car and drove him to an urgent-care center. They were immediately directed to the emergency room.

Cameron called his mother, Brandy, 50, from the ER at Emory Eastside Medical Center. He was dizzy and scared—he’d never been knocked out before, and he dreaded the “I told you so” lecture from his dad—but tried to sound positive. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll go to the showcase tomorrow.”

By the time Brandy arrived, Cameron was on a gurney being wheeled down the hall for a CT scan. They both expected the doctor to come back and say Cameron had a concussion. But the doctor was gone 10 minutes, 20, then 40. If this is a concussion, why is it taking so long? Brandy wondered.

After an hour, the doctor returned to say he’d consulted with neurosurgeons at Emory University Hospital. A concussion, it seemed, was the least of Cameron’s problems. At minimum, the doctor said, he would have to put his baseball career on hold. Cameron broke down and cried. The news got worse: Cameron had a colloid cyst—a rare, potentially fatal brain tumor.

Before barreling into Jacob’s legs, Cameron suffered from frequent headaches. He thought it was his allergies. “They weren’t big headaches where I couldn’t open my eyes in light or anything like that,” he says. Every time he got one, he took three or four Advils, which eased the pain.

Phil had driven five hours back from his business trip the day of the diagnosis. Now, a week later, in the office of an Emory neurosurgeon, he and his wife and son heard Costas Hadjipanayis, MD, 37, explain how serious the problem was. Colloid cysts, which represent less than 1 percent of brain tumors, are usually found at the center of the brain, where two fluid-filled chambers, called ventricles, drain into a third. If the fluid can’t drain, it backs up and causes the brain to swell, often causing frequent headaches. Without treatment, they can become extremely painful, distort vision, and, in rare cases, lead to stroke and death.

As Dr. Hadjipanayis held up the CT scans, the Halls could see that the left side of Cameron’s brain was much bigger than the right. The third ventricle was 90 percent blocked. “We were lucky to catch this at the right time,” Dr. Hadjipanayis said. He needed to operate on Cameron’s brain—soon. On the hour-long drive home, nobody said a word.

Brain surgery, like everything in medicine, evolves. For decades, a surgeon treating a patient with a colloid cyst has performed a craniotomy—removing part of the skull and exposing the brain, then digging in and removing the cyst. A full recovery can take six months to a year. Memory loss is common. Some patients have to relearn basic motor skills, like walking up stairs. A craniotomy was not something Cameron wanted to consider. He hoped to play baseball again. He wanted to graduate with his class and attend college.

But by making the appointment with Dr. Hadjipanayis, the Halls got lucky. He’s one of the few surgeons in the world who operate on colloid cysts without a craniotomy. Instead, he drills a small hole in the patient’s forehead and slides a six-millimeter-wide tube called an endoscope inside. Then he inserts several two-millimeter-wide tools through the endoscope and into the brain, removing the cyst.

Knowing Cameron wouldn’t need a craniotomy didn’t reduce the Halls’ nervousness. They’re still going into my son’s brain, so I’m going to worry, Phil recalls thinking. Cameron tried to stay positive. The night before the surgery, he said to his father, “Dad, let’s go to the park and throw.” He wasn’t sure when he’d be able to toss a baseball again.

The next morning, Cameron’s parents, aunts, uncles, and closest friends crowded into his hospital room. His pitching coach had been there since 6 a.m. “I’m not leaving until I know my buddy is okay,” he said.

Nurses shaved Cameron’s head and positioned tiny circular markers around his skull so his brain could be monitored in the operating room. “It looks like he stuck his head in Cheerios,” Brandy said, trying to lighten the mood.

Before Cameron went into surgery, everyone commented on how calm he seemed. Afterward he would say he couldn’t bear to see his family break down, so he did his best to remain composed. “I was trying to keep myself from thinking that something bad was going to happen,” he says. “I was pretending it was surgery on my foot or something.” Cameron’s parents, though, had to take anxiety medication to remain calm. They told their son they loved him as he was wheeled away. And then it was their turn to wait.

In the OR, Dr. Hadjipanayis studied Cameron’s scans to determine the best place to enter his brain. The blockages made going in on the left side a little easier—because of the swelling, there was more room to maneuver the endoscope—but the brain’s speech functions are there, so the easier route was also riskier.

Dr. Hadjipanayis found a path through the right side and began drilling. Only an hour after their son was wheeled into the OR, Phil and Brandy were astonished to see the surgeon coming toward them. Had something gone wrong? “Everything went great,” he reassured them. They were free to see their son.

By mid-afternoon, Cameron was in a recovery room with his family. Dr. Hadjipanayis asked him to point out his parents. Check. What school did he go to? Brookwood. Check. He spent the next two days in intensive care—in pain, sitting motionless in a chair, a tube in his brain draining blood to prevent swelling. On day three, the pain began to subside. Nurses removed the tubes, and Cameron was able to walk around.

He was transferred to a regular room, and the first thing he did was smack his head on the door. Brandy said, “Oh, dude. You just had brain surgery.” They laughed.

“So that’s my luck, but I guess there’s good luck too,” Cameron said.

Luck. There had been a lot of that. When Cameron went home, four days after the operation, the Halls were finally able to reflect on their good fortune—all the little doors, as Brandy put it, that had to be open to find Cameron’s tumor before it was too late: Phil had to be out of town; there was no way Cameron would have played football if he’d been home. Cameron had to suggest switching the game from touch to tackle. And he had to be playing defense when Jacob went out for a pass and jumped in the air just high enough so that Cameron’s head smashed into his legs.

At an appointment six weeks after the surgery, Dr. Hadjipanayis asked Cameron whether he’d thrown a ball yet. He hadn’t—he was nervous and awaiting the okay. The surgeon smiled and said, “Give it a try.” So Cameron and his dad went home to get their gloves. On the drive to the park, Phil worried that Cameron’s depth perception would be off. And then his son threw the ball—and kept throwing. “It was like nothing had ever happened,” Phil said.

The first night Cameron pitched for his high school team the next spring, people in the crowd cried. And then the game became what it was—a regular game. The team finished fourth in the state. After being pursued by several colleges, he landed an athletic scholarship at Georgia Perimeter College. The only way anyone would know he’s had brain surgery is by looking closely at the right side of his forehead, which has a faint scar less than an inch long.

Cameron is back to being concerned not with a tumor but with daily life as a student athlete: getting good grades and playing baseball. “I’m gonna keep playing,” he says, “as long as I can.”