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Expanded cancer center shows its comprehensive care for toddler Timmy Brown.

Photo: Timmy Brown

Timmy Brown, who is successfully beating a once life-threatening brain tumor because of the care he received at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, tells his mother, Maryanne, “Look Mommy! I getting bigger and bigger!”

(Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

When 2-year-old Timmy Brown was rushed into a UC Davis Medical Center operating room for emergency brain surgery, the on-call medical team not only made sure that he had his favorite cloud-patterned blanket in hand — they also made sure he was touching the favorite part of his blanket — the little silk tag. They knew that half-inch piece of tattered, white silk was Timmy’s comfort zone.

“When they did that, I knew we were definitely at the right place,” said Timmy’s mom, Maryanne.

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center patients like Timmy will have access to a more integrated and dynamic approach to cancer care, treatment, and research because of the cancer center’s expansion project, which celebrates its grand opening on Oct. 22. More than 10 years in the making, the project was made possible through the philanthropic support of nearly 1,000 donors who committed more than $9.5 million.

The UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of only 41 cancer centers in the nation to be designated “comprehensive” by the National Cancer Institute. This designation is reserved for the world’s elite cancer centers, ones that demonstrate excellence in basic and transformative research and a wide spectrum of cancer prevention, educational and outreach services.

The 46,000 square-foot expansion will help the center better fulfill its comprehensive status by allowing staff to care for an estimated 10,000 adults and pediatric patients — all under one roof. Now comprising 110,000 square feet, the center will have the space to allow physician’s to expand clinical trials, more easily collaborate on research, and conduct more specialty clinics.

Photo: Maryanne and Timmy Brown

Timmy cuddling with his mom and his favorite cloud-patterned blanket. Maryanne was a guest speaker at the cancer center’s expansion grand opening ceremony on Oct. 22.

(Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Another important feature of the expansion is the additional space in the main cancer center for pediatric cancer patients, like Timmy. Because of space constraints, childhood cancer patients previously had been seen in another building several blocks away. The new Cancer Center building has an entire floor dedicated to pediatrics, with five examination rooms and 13 infusion chairs for chemotherapy treatment, including two isolation rooms for patients who require or desire privacy. Childhood cancer patients also have their own indoor play area.

Co-locating pediatrics and adult cancer clinics improves continuity of care for adolescent and young adult patients, and fosters more collaboration among pediatric and adult cancer specialists. Additionally, a new clinic will be launched to help young adult survivors deal with long-term side effects from childhood cancers.

“We are thrilled to have a center that enables innovative patient care and research, helping us to be truly comprehensive so we can beat this disease,” said Ralph de Vere White, cancer center director.

About a month before Timmy’s emergency surgery, his parents noticed something was wrong with their youngest son. He started complaining that his head hurt and kept grabbing his ear. They also noticed that he lost his balance frequently, would often stumble or fall and had to hold on to the wall when walking down the hallway in their home. They thought it was an ear infection.

Photo: Timmy Brown

Timmy shows off one of his stuffed animals to the camera. The 3-year-old, who is also into Mickey Mouse and Superman, has been battling a brain tumor since January 2012.

(Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

His mother Maryanne took him to the doctors at the UC Davis Medical Center — a health care provider she chose because, as a UC Davis alumna, she knew the medical center’s reputation as one of the nation’s top teaching hospitals. Physicians put Timmy on a series of antibiotics and told Maryanne to bring Timmy back in if his symptoms did not improve within a few days.

Just two days later, on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 26, Timmy took a dramatic turn for the worse. Maryanne had just finished dressing Timmy and his then five-year-old brother, James. When she walked back into Timmy’s room, she found him lifeless on his bed.

“He was just a pile on the bed. He was breathing, but he was totally unresponsive,” Maryanne recalled. “It was very scary. I yelled to my husband, Mark, and rushed Timmy to the emergency room.”

Less than two hours later Timmy was diagnosed with medulloblastoma — a brain tumor in the cerebellum, which controls balance and other complex motor functions. This is the most common type of pediatric brain tumor and accounts for 15 to 20 percent of all brain tumors in children. In the U.S., 500 cases of medulloblastoma are diagnosed annually.

Timmy’s brain tumor was the size of a tangerine. It was pushing on the ventricle in his central nervous system, blocking spinal fluid and causing dangerous swelling in his brain.

Timmy had a three-hour emergency surgery that day in which doctors inserted a drain to relieve pressure in his brain. The next day he underwent a nine-hour operation to remove the tumor.

“That was a very long day,” Maryanne said. “I was really numb, but I do remember Dr. (Cheryl) Vance telling us that we were in good hands and that they were not going to leave until it was better. That gave me a great sense of comfort.”

After his surgery, Timmy continued to receive top-quality care at the UC Davis Children’s Hospital.

“All the nurses in the pediatric intensive care unit were amazing. Not just for Timmy, but also for the whole family — especially James. They explained what was happening to his little brother in a way that he could understand,” she said. “There isn’t one person we met there that I didn’t like. And that’s saying a lot, especially when you are putting your child’s life in their hands.”

Maryanne’s face lights up, as if recalling old friends, when as she rattles off the names of the medical professionals at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center who cared for Timmy during this traumatic ordeal. She tells stories of miniature golf games, imaginary animal safari adventures, and 4th-of-July parades filled with happy children showing off their decorated IV poles.

“Those things made a huge difference in our lives because they made us feel normal,” said Maryanne, who will be a guest speaker at the cancer center’s expansion grand opening ceremony. “This whole experience has definitely renewed my faith in human kindness.”

Timmy celebrated his third birthday this past August. In addition to rejoicing over his third year of life, he and dozens of family members and friends also cheered the end of his seven-month chemotherapy treatment.

Timmy is currently undergoing radiation treatment, but “doesn’t seem to be slowing down a bit,” Maryanne said with a smile. Timmy’s prognosis is good: he is expected to develop normally.

“I’m just so grateful for everyone and anyone tied to the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, and those who donate to and volunteer at the Cancer Center,” Maryanne said, “because without them, our little boy wouldn’t be here.”