Seventeen-year-old Kyle Arieta lives for football, but as his mother is quick to note, football doesn’t define him. Instead, she points to a quiet determination that he’s learned from his years on the playing field. It’s an attitude of pushing through and moving beyond that’s served him well in the game, and which drove him to get back on his feet after the brain tumor.
When the southeastern Massachusetts native went to bed one night last May, he’d been having headaches off and on for a while. They weren’t all that bad, more like a mild cold that wouldn’t go away.
That next morning, though, it was clear that the headaches had been a sign of something more. Kyle awoke in head-splitting pain—and nearly blind.
By the end of the day, he was at Boston Children’s Hospital, where neurosurgeons performed emergency surgery to remove a tumor growing in his pituitary gland—a pea-sized part of the brain that acts like a control room for the body’s hormones.
We had no idea that anything had been wrong,” says his mother, Joanne Rebelo. But after a trip to their local hospital turned into an ambulance ride to Boston Children’s it was clear that something, indeed was wrong. “All we knew was that they found a mass in his brain. That’s when everything kind of flipped upside down for us,” Joanne says.
Kyle and his family were met at Boston Children’s emergency room by a neurosurgical team led by Edward Smith, MD, the hospital’s director of pediatric cerebrovascular neurosurgery.
“Kyle had progressed pretty quickly over the course of a day,” says Smith, noting that his main concern was saving Kyle’s vision. Because of the size and location of Kyle’s tumor, Smith was able do the surgery in a unique way: through his nose. “It’s a pretty rapid and high-tech operation, and we didn’t have to cut a hole in his skull to do it.”
The new normal
A few hours later, Kyle woke up in the ICU. The surgery was a success, and a week later Kyle went home from the hospital.
“I’d never been so happy to be home,” Kyle recalls. “But it was hard at the same time. I was still pretty weak at first. I’d get winded just walking to the end of the driveway. At about the two-month mark, though, everything seemed to take off.” This included his vision, which came back as good as new. “I could even start working out with the football team again.”
But not everything is back to normal. While the tumor turned out to be benign, because it had been buried in Kyle’s pituitary, Smith hadn’t been able to remove it completely. To make sure it doesn’t grow back and present a problem Kyle still has regular checkups at the Stop & Shop Family Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Outcomes Clinic at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.
And because the combination of tumor and surgery damaged the gland itself, Kyle was left with diabetes insipidus (DI), a hormone imbalance that makes it hard for his body to control its water balance.
Luckily, DI can be controlled with medication, which Kyle will likely have to take for the rest of his life, according to endocrinologist Vidhu Thaker, MD. “Kyle’s fortunate that his only hormone deficiency after surgery has been DI,” she says. “It can be difficult to manage, especially in summer, but he and his family have been very observant, and his outlook is very good.”
Back on the field
All through his recovery, Kyle’s quiet determination focused on one thing. “I wanted to get back to a sense of normalcy,” he says. “I had asked the doctors in the hospital if I’d be able to play football again, and when they said yes, it gave me the determination to get up and get better. I’d been playing since freshman year, and my senior season was coming up.”
And play he did, helping his high school team, the Dighton-Rehoboth Falcons, achieve a winning season last fall. “It felt unreal put on my gear and get back on the field, but it made me happy, like it was finally over,” Kyle says of his first game back on the field. “Like I didn’t have to worry about what had happened over those four months.”
His mother has looks back on the season a little differently. “I was terrified every time he took a hit,” she admits. “But every time he ran out on the field, I was so proud.”
But, she adds, through the whole experience Kyle’s shown a maturity beyond his years. “It’s never entered his mind to use what happened as a crutch or complain or give up. He’s just to carried on.”
That desire to carry on didn’t go unnoticed by Kyle’s coaches and their peers, either. On their recommendation, on March 2 the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston honored Arieta with their Henry Smith Courage Award, for being an inspiration to all through by displaying exceptional courage while dealing with and overcoming especially challenging events or circumstances. And on April 27, he’ll receive a second award, the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association’s Paul Costello Courageous Player Award.
Looking back over the last year, Joanne has nothing but praise for the care they all received at Boston Children’s. “Everyone at the hospital treated us like family,” she says. “We didn’t meet a single person with an attitude of impatience.
“They treated my child like he was their child, like his fight was their fight.”