An 18-inch tumor clung to Nicole Lobato's spinal cord, starting in her brain and extending nearly the full length of her back.
She was 9 when it was discovered. She'd initially been told scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine, was causing the agonizing pain that woke her in the middle of the night.
The first specialists she saw with her grandmother Debbie Lobato, who is also her legal guardian, were reluctant to offer any prognosis. They offered to do surgery but did not seem confident it would succeed.
That wasn't good enough. Debbie Lobato sought a second opinion at Cedars-Sinai.
Moise Danielpour, MD
Moise Danielpour, MD, director of the Pediatric Neurosurgery Program, specializes in spinal tumors. Nicole's tumor was the largest he had ever seen or operated on — and as part of one of the largest neurosurgery programs in the United States, Danielpour has operated on hundreds of tumor patients.
"This was a tumor in a young, beautiful little girl," he said. "There are so many risks involved with it. I spoke to a lot of my colleagues and my entire team. I sat down for hours, looking at all the films, planning the surgery and saying, ‘How are we going to get this right so we can give this kid a long life?'"
The carefully plotted surgery lasted 14 hours. The tumor occupied most of Nicole's spinal cord, which the surgical team lifted to remove the tumor, then put back in place.
After the grueling hours waiting to learn how the surgery had gone, Debbie Lobato and Nicole's twin brother, Nathaniel, heard good news. Danielpour had a promising prognosis for his young patient.
"He told me she was going to prom. She was graduating. She was getting married. She was having babies — a lot better than the other prognosis," Debbie Lobato said. "We knew we had her."
Now 12, Nicole races her brother — and often wins. She especially loves practicing cartwheels, which she manages beautifully despite some lingering nerve damage and some trouble with her left arm.
"I land them sometimes, and I slip sometimes, and they're really fun," said the Big Bear girl.
She loves singing and dancing, and she's able to do them without the pain that plagued her before.
She's looking forward to starting middle school. She and her family have come a long way in three years: a journey that took them from fear to hope to back-to-school shopping, choir practices and all the normal end-of-summer rituals a typical 12-year-old experiences.
Danielpour is looking forward further to hearing news of her graduation, her college picks and her wedding.