Charles Parker is the kind of kid you meet and instantly fall in love with. Elizabeth Parker, Charles’ mom, describes him as eccentric and intelligent; he knows how to make everyone laugh and loves learning about science and space.
Until Charles was 8 years old, he had always been healthy. That year, he started having a very high fever and a bad cough every few months. In August 2021, Charles was diagnosed with pneumonia at an urgent care center. Months later, his fever came back, and his pediatrician thought it was a virus. This went on for a year and felt, to Charles and his family, like a never-ending cycle of unexplainable sickness.
After more than 45 missed days of school, Elizabeth knew it was time to explore other options. Lab tests and scans revealed a foreign body in Charles’ lung, so he was referred to Children’s of Alabama for further testing. At Children’s, Dr. Allyson Brown and her pulmonary team did a bronchoscopy to investigate the foreign body in his lung. What happened next is what no parent ever wants to hear about their child: Charles had cancer.
During the bronchoscopy, Charles’ care team found a tumor on his right lung that was blocking 90% of his airway. The mass was identified as neuroendocrine cancer, a type that does not respond well to chemotherapy or radiation. This meant that Charles had to have surgery on his lung to remove it. “We were beside ourselves because we never would have guessed that he would have cancer,” Elizabeth said.
Brown referred Charles to Dr. Benjamin Wei, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Wei specializes in robotic surgery, which is less invasive and allows the surgery team to save as much tissue as possible. This surgical platform enables surgeons to safely operate on children using 3D technology and magnification. Because chemotherapy and radiation were not an option for Charles, robotic surgery was the best avenue to save as much of his lung as possible. However, at the time, UAB was not able to perform anesthesia on Charles because of his age and size, and Children’s did not have a surgical robot yet but was in the process of getting one. So, Charles had a debulking surgery done to get a closer look at the state of the tumor. His care teams decided not to wait for Children’s to get the robot and to go ahead with the surgery through a standard thoracotomy incision, which would be more painful but could be done without the robot.
Charles’ surgery had to be pushed back a few weeks because he got strep throat, but finally, in February 2023, it was time for the mass to be removed from his lung. On the day of Charles’ surgery, as he was going back to pre-operation, the Parker family received some exciting news: the surgical robot system had made it Children’s, and Charles was going to be the first patient operated on using the new technology. “I fully trusted Dr. Wei with my son’s life and knew that he would do everything in his power to save Charles’ lung,” Elizabeth said.
Not only was the surgery successful, Charles' recovery time was fast. Wei was able to remove the tumor and save some of Charles’ right lung. He spent three days inpatient and then a week and a half at home. After two weeks, he was back at school.
“Charles had the best team of doctors. Between Dr. Wei at UAB, Dr. Brown with pulmonology and Dr. (Elizabeth) Alva with oncology at Children’s, they were all so attentive to us and all our questions. We have just been so thankful. We don’t know what we would have done if it wasn’t for his care teams and the technology at Children’s,” Elizabeth said.
Charles has a knack for science, and Wei remembered this about him. In the spring of 2023, Wei and UAB twice invited Charles back to interact with the same robot used in his surgery, along with a robot simulator surgeons use for training. This was a memorable experience for Charles because he was able to play games with the robot simulator just like surgeons do in training. He also got to meet a handful of people from his surgery team.
In the summer of 2023, Charles finished third grade and had a calendar full of activities; he spent his time at camp, swam, hiked, biked and felt like a normal kid again. Now, Charles is in fourth grade, and he is thriving. His scans were clear during his six-month post-operation visit with Alva, and his lab work was perfect. He will have another follow-up visit in February and then come to Children’s about once a year. “Children’s has made such a difference in our lives,” Elizabeth said. “And we will be forever grateful.”