Preschooler Thrives After a T-Ball Hit Saves His Life

Carter Henley enjoys a hike with his little brother, Levi, mom, Katie, and dad, Patrick.

Carter Henley is like most 4-year-old boys. He enjoys playing with his little brother, Levi, and loves anything active, like running, biking, and swimming. He also takes his role as head tomato farmer in his family’s backyard in Bakersfield, California, very seriously.

“He does all the taste-testing, and we rarely get a ripe tomato inside the house because they’re gone by the time he finds them,” says Katie Henley, Carter’s mom.

Carter brings that same energy and passion to everything he does. In April 2021, during his very first T-ball game, Carter ran headfirst into another child while trying to catch a ball. He appeared fine, except for a large bump on his head, until the next day, when he threw up at lunchtime.

“It was like alarm bells in my head,” Katie says. “I looked at my husband, Patrick, and said he could have a concussion. I’ve always ridden horses, and that’s one of the first things you think about—if you fall, hit your head, and throw up, you need to go to the ER and get it checked out.”

A diagnosis out of left field

Patrick took him to the emergency room in their hometown where Carter received a CT (computed tomography) scan.

“The doctor said, ‘Well, there’s no concussion, but he has a brain tumor,’” Patrick remembers. “It was the scariest moment of both of our lives.”

Carter’s parents had a million questions race through their mind: Is he going to have a normal life? What are the long-lasting effects? Will he be able to play T-ball or ride a bike again?

Thankfully, both Katie and Patrick have relatives who are also in the health care field.

“We called them, and my father said, ‘You’re taking him to Stanford Children’s Health,’” Katie says.

Getting Carter back to play

The Henleys met with Kelly Mahaney, MD,  pediatric neurosurgeon and interim division chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Stanford Children’s Health, to do some more tests and discuss next steps.

“Carter actually had an MRI that was much more extensive than what we have available to us in Bakersfield,” Katie says. “He had to be under anesthesia, so that was really scary, but at the same time, we were so comforted by Dr. Mahaney, every single nurse, every single tech, every doctor working at Stanford Children’s Health. They all really have the same love for him—truly love for him—that we have.”

Carter had a choroid plexus papilloma—a rare kind of benign brain tumor that grows in the fluid space of the brain. Even though it was small, no one can predict how a tumor will behave, whether it will grow, and what kinds of problems it will cause, which is why Dr. Mahaney recommended surgery.

“The skull is a fixed cavity,” she explains. “And if there’s something else taking up room within the skull, that means less room for the brain. If it’s in an area where it’s blocking normal flow of brain and spinal fluid, it wouldn’t take much growth for it to block off the fluid space and cause a condition called hydrocephalus, which if left untreated is lethal.”

Not only that, but it’s not possible to find out whether the tumor is benign, like the one Carter had, or malignant until doctors remove and test it.

“I think it’s always challenging to meet with a family and explain to them that even though their child looks perfect and is not having symptoms, their child needs surgery,” Dr. Mahaney says. “That’s why this family is so amazing. I sat down with them, reviewed the MRI, explained the rationale for surgery and the process of the surgery and the hospital stay. Ultimately they put their trust in me and our team.”

In June, Dr. Mahaney operated on Carter and successfully removed the tumor. Carter hasn’t missed a step since the surgery. He constantly entertains his family with jokes, like “What do you call a sleeping bull? A bulldozer!” And he’s gearing up for his next new thing: his first season of flag football.

Looking back, the family is so grateful that they trusted their gut and their medical care team because they can’t imagine what would’ve happened if they hadn’t found the tumor.

“It’s just wild the way we discovered it,” Katie says. “The cases that we have read about all of the kids had the same kind of symptoms, where they were stumbling or had terrible headaches. He never had any of those symptoms, and because we found his tumor in such a truly miraculous way, we’re very lucky.”

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