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Neurosurgeon inspired by girl to find way out of her ordeal

Fourteen-year-old Marygrace Garguilo does not even remember how she melted the heart of the Women & Children's Hospital neurosurgeon who removed her brain tumor. But it was a moment that Dr. Veetai Li cannot forget.

Initially, the Kenmore East High School freshman was not making much progress toward recovery. She woke up from surgery unable to speak and paralyzed on her right side.

"It's hard to see kids in this condition," Li said. "After an operation, you feel somewhat responsible. She may have sensed that in me or seen it in my face ... that I was not happy or satisfied with the situation."

What she did next helped him deal with it, Li said.

"She reached out her left arm and held my hand, and I melted right then and there. You can imagine the emotional impact that had," he said. "That was where her true character shined through."

Li and Marygrace met for the first time last June. For several weeks beforehand, Marygrace had been having excruciating headaches.

A trip to her pediatrician's office resulted in a CAT scan that showed a large lesion in her brain. Her parents, Mark and Maureen, initially were told that it was some type of cyst and that more tests were required.

Marygrace then went to Women & Children's for an MRI. And that day was the beginning of a very scary journey back to health, the Town of Tonawanda family said.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Marygrace said. "I was supposed to go to a couple of graduation parties, but I came home and slept on my parents' bed."

When doctors called with the news,

Marygrace gave her parents the telephone and went back upstairs. But she could hear her mother crying.

"I'm a registered nurse, and I never suspected this," Maureen said. "I thought it was migraines or muscle-tension headaches."

It turned out that the lesion was a tumor in a fluid sac of the left ventricle.

"Everybody has them," Li said. "Inside the fluid sacs, we make fluid normally. It circulates from ventricle to ventricle. It comes outside the brain and gets absorbed back into the bloodstream. [Marygrace's] lesion was blocking some of the outflow in the left ventricle."

He compared the potentially lethal process to stopping up a sink of water.

"It's a very serious problem because, left untreated, it would have allowed the pressure to build up on her brain and maybe not survive," Li said.

At 2.75 by 1.8 by 1.7 inches, the tumor was the size of a small lemon.

"That's a sizable lesion," Li said. "Your brain is in a fixed skull, so anything that's growing in there just causes pressure. It's not like the abdomen, which can protrude. The brain can't because the skull is rigid."

Since the procedure to remove the tumor, Marygrace has had two additional surgeries to drain fluid buildup from her brain. The last one was around Christmas, Li said, and an MRI taken recently showed that "she was in really good shape."

"She walks and talks. The lesion is a benign one, and we're just going to watch it," he said. "She came through this OK."

Marygrace got through the ordeal because of her faith combined with the love of her family -- which also includes three brothers, Marc Paluch, 29; Matthew Paluch, 25; and Joseph Garguilo, 18.

"All you can do is try to alleviate stress and the pain," the youngest brother said. "All you can do is remind them of how and why you love them."

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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