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Little girl displays large spirit

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  • | 4:00 a.m. July 26, 2012
  • Sarasota
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Every time Teeja Johnson arrives at the Children’s Garden, she makes a beeline to Snow White’s cottage and kisses all seven dwarfs — then she says “hi” to Dopey. Without fail, it’s full throttle all the way down the big twisty slide before racing around the garden as fast as her little legs will carry her. Every so often, she trots back to the cottage to check on the seven dwarfs.

Teeja, who turned 3 years old July 24, was not feeling well the week of May 7. At first, her mother, Tana Johnson, thought it might be the virus that was traveling around Teeja’s preschool, which was causing vomiting and diarrhea in the students. An urgent-care doctor told Johnson that the virus would probably just run its course. But Teeja continued to have stomach pain, especially at night, and would pad down the hall once every hour to find her mother.

The following Monday, Johnson took Teeja to see her pediatrician and have her checked a second time. They saw an on-call pediatrician because Teeja’s regular doctor was out of town, but again they were told it was viral and it would pass.

“I knew something was really wrong when we took her to her favorite place in Sarasota — the Children’s Garden — and she went down the slide about five times, was completely exhausted and wanted to go home,” Johnson said. “This, from a child who typically goes all day like her mama and was dropping her afternoon nap just last month. She is a child who wants to play and wants to invite you into her imaginary world. She’s a spitfire.”

After three more nights of Johnson sleeping on the floor next to Teeja’s bed and watching her daughter writhing in pain until the Tylenol or Motrin kicked in, she tried abdominal massage, thinking that constipation might be the cause.

“As I used to do massage therapy, I tried to feel for an obstruction or blockage to help things pass more easily, and I felt what we now know is the tumor,” Johnson said. “I asked my husband, Dennis, if he felt it as well, but he did not know what to feel for and did not want to press too hard on her tummy.”
Johnson made a third appointment for May 21 — this time with Teeja’s regular pediatrician.

“On Monday, our pediatrician listened to me and felt her tummy,” Johnson said. “She felt exactly what I had been feeling and was on the phone to All Children’s Hospital in an instant and had us up and receiving an ultrasound and blood tests within two hours.”

By May 25, the Johnsons received the diagnosis — Teeja had neuroblastoma, a malignant tumor that develops from nerve tissue and usually occurs in infants and children. Teeja started chemotherapy that evening.

“I’m thankful we found it when we did,” Johnson said. “This disease is a very aggressive cancer that moves fast. But, it hasn’t spread and is not attached to any organs. The goal is to shrink it and remove it, and then she has further treatments after that.”

Over the past few months, the family has made sudden and increasingly frequent trips to All Children’s Hospital. Outpatient visits have become consistent and medications routine. For a mother into natural living, giving her daughter so many drugs has been difficult.

“You can’t just say here, ‘Drink some wheat grass and the tumor will shrink,” Johnson says. “You have to treat it aggressively. It’s a lot for a little body to take.”

Now that part of the tumor has died off and has shrunk, Teeja feels better. It isn’t pressing on her ureters or kidney, which was causing high blood pressure, and she has more energy. And, even after all of the doctor visits, trips to the hospital and chemotherapy treatments, Teeja still doesn’t know the word “cancer.”

“She knows that something is wrong and that we go to the hospital,” Johnson says. “The only thing I’ve ever heard her say is, ‘Mommy what happened to my hair?’ when she looked in the mirror. She doesn’t have any fear about what’s happening.”

Family Circus Day
Friends of the family George and Kimberly Manooshian will host a car wash and fundraiser from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4, at Encore Motorcars, 6000 S. Tamiami Trail. The extravaganza will feature children’s activities, clowns, cotton candy, acrobat entertainment, face painting, games, popcorn and raffle items. Proceeds will benefit Teeja Johnson, who has an estimated $15,000 in uncovered expenses. To date, $12,895 has been raised. Call 922-6337 or visit for information. To donate, visit