LAKEWOOD RANCH — A neurosurgeon stopped in his tracks as Lakewood Ranch’s Jaworski family was eating lunch at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
I know you, the surgeon said to Rachael Jaworski.
Of course he did.
In the past seven months, Rachael, now a sixth-grader at Nolan Middle School, had become one of the hospital’s most familiar faces. On Dec. 26, 2009, her parents, Wendy and Michael, found her collapsed on the bathroom floor. Tests later revealed an arterio-venous malformation in her brain ruptured. Scans also showed two brain aneurysms, which if left untreated, could kill her.
The surgeon had been one of many assigned to Rachael’s case.
Oh my God, he said after seeing Rachael able to walk, talk and eat. We never expected you to come through like this. You’re a walking miracle.
TWO STEPS BACK
Although it’s true — Rachael’s progress so far has been nothing short of miraculous — the Jaworskis know the road to recovery is much longer. On July 21, Rachael received a risky CyberKnife radiation procedure to shrink the AVM. The 90-minute surgery successfully delivered 158 beams of radiation into Rachael’s brain — all while she was bolted down.
“She was so cooperative,” Wendy says of her daughter. “And at one point, she gave us the thumbs up to let us know she was OK.”
But during the procedure, doctors discovered another AVM, bringing Rachael’s total to two AVMs and two brain aneurysms — any of which could be fatal at any time.
“It’s like we took one step forward and two steps back,” Wendy says of the procedure. “This (new) one is on the brain stem.”
And although many of Rachael’s motor skills have returned, her short-term memory has not. She can’t remember things she’s done just minutes before and often asks if she’s supposed to know.
No, the family tells her.
“It breaks our heart because Rachael is working hard with her studies and therapies, but the pathways in her brain haven’t rerouted yet to allow her memory to stick,” the family wrote in its online journal. “It must be frustrating.”
Aside from the news of the second AVM, the Jaworskis are shocked by Rachael’s progress since December.
Wendy pulls out two photos — one of Rachael in a medically induced coma after her collapse and a second of her just six months later, standing proudly in a purple and pink dress and her hair in curls.
“This is when she graduated from McNeal,” Wendy says of the second photo. “It’s unbelievable. Look at her.”
Wendy, a nurse, worked with her daughter in physical, occupational and speech therapies. Eventually, Rachael regained her ability to walk and eat. Her smile returned, and just about a week after her CyberKnife procedure, Rachael was in the family pool playing with her older brother, Ryan. During the summer, the Jaworskis took Rachael to Busch Gardens in Tampa and also to the beach. And to date, Rachael has exhibited no negative side effects from the radiation procedure.
This week, she also started school as a sixth-grader at Nolan. There, she will have an aide assisting her one-on-one, and the school also has made other provisions to accommodate Rachael’s needs.
The Jaworskis won’t know the effects of the CyberKnife procedure for another three months, when a cerebral angiogram will reveal whether the targeted AVM is shrinking.
“After that first one, hopefully we’ll know things are moving in the right direction,” Wendy says.
If so, doctors hope destroying the first AVM also will treat the blood vessels that contain the two aneurysms.
Wendy says the outpouring of love and support from the East County community has astounded her family. This Saturday, actress Maggie Wheeler, best known as Janice from the TV show “Friends,” will appear at Braden River High School at a benefit for the Jaworskis (see related story). The concert was organized by East County resident Maureen Flaherty, and tickets are available through Little Bookworms on Lakewood Ranch Main Street.
“We’ve been through so much, and all the people we have met along this journey have really made it easier,” she says.
That support has helped the Jaworskis remain optimistic as they count the days until this ordeal is a memory.
“It’s a small piece of life right now,” she says. “We’re hopeful that in two or three years, we’ve made it through this.
“I keep telling myself, ‘She is alive; she is alive,’” Wendy says. “There’s not a minute that passes that I don’t realize how lucky we are.”
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].