Around January of 2011, 10-year-old Elena Soviero started having mild headaches and stomach aches and not really looking or acting herself. They were very vague symptoms, but her headaches clearly started getting worse over the next two months.
The Milford girl would get ready for school, but when it was time to go she would lie down on the couch and say she didn't feel well. She went to the nurse quite a few times and her mother picked up early from school. But she had good days when she was feeling well, so it was very hard to tell what was going on.


Last Feb. 22, the family was in Philadelphia on vacation. Elena is one of four children. She has a sister Emma, 17; Kyle, 14; and Kendall, 6.
Elena was very excited to go to the art museum. About 15 minutes after they got there, she suddenly had a severe headache.
“My husband, Fiore, had to carry her out of the museum,” said Elena’s mother, Janice. “After a long nap she woke up and was sick to her stomach. At this point we were worried and decided to bring her to the hospital. She did not have a fever so we were pretty sure that it was not a virus, but at the emergency room, they gave her medicine for her headache and stomach ache and told us it was most likely a virus, and discharged her two hours later. She seemed to be feeling better, and we went home to Connecticut the next day.”
Fiore and Janice both work in the medical field — Janice is a pediatric intensive care unit nurse and Fiore is a physician’s assistant — so it was probably more than parent intuition that told them something was wrong.
They brought Elena to the pediatrician, who examined her and suspected that it was migraines. To be safe, the doctor referred them to a neurologist.
“She also told us it would be worrisome if she vomited in the morning after waking up and then went back to sleep — classic brain tumor symptoms,” Janice said. “Two days later, she did exactly that and over the next week her headaches seemed to get worse and she slept more. But after more doctor visits and phone calls they still thought it was migraines, because she didn't have any other neurological symptoms.”
Elena went to the neurologist March 3, 2011, and he thought the problem was migraines too. But he scheduled an MRI to be safe.
“The MRI was scheduled for March 7, a Monday, at our local hospital,” Janice said. “Fiore was going to bring her but at the last minute I decided to go too. He stood next to her during the scan and the techs let me stand next to them and watch. I was not very worried — for the previous few days she seemed to be feeling better, and several doctors had told us it was migraines. Being a newborn ICU nurse, I have brought many babies for brain MRI and know what a normal one looks like. But when I saw the large circular white spot on Elena's MRI, I tried to make it into something else — her eye, or one of the headphones she was wearing. But then I knew. I looked at my husband and shook my head. He thought I meant everything was OK. At the end, I asked the technician, ‘What is the white spot?’ He said, “Well, it's different.’ I asked if Fiore could look at it and they let him, and also made us a copy of it to bring home.”
Fiore got on the phone right away with a neurosurgeon he works with, and the doctor told them to go right away to Yale Childrens' Hospital to have her admitted in the Pedi ICU.
“We hadn't told Elena anything about the MRI so now we had to tell her that the doctors saw something on the MRI and that she had to go to the hospital,” Janice said.
After an MRI at Yale, Dr. Michael DiLuna, part of the neurosurgery team at Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital, was pretty sure it was a cavernoma (cavernous hemangioma).
According to an on-line medical dictionary, a cavernous hemangioma is a benign tumor, usually in infants or children, made up of newly formed blood vessels and resulting from malformation of angioblastic tissue.
The doctor told Janice and Fiore that he wanted to do the surgery in the Smilow Cancer Center because they had just gotten an MRI in the operating room.
“I remember he said that the cavernoma was located near the part of the brain that controls speech, and she could have some residual effects in her speech,” Janice said.
Elena went in to the operating room at 8 a.m. on March 9, 2011. Sometime around noon, Dr. Diluna came out and said it had gone well, and he was able to remove the whole cavernoma. She came back to her room around 2 p.m.
“Needless to say it was a very long and stressful six hours,” Janice said.
“Having the MRI in the operating room was such a great advantage,” she added, “and a huge relief to us to know right away that it was completely removed, they were able to remove it without affecting the brain tissue, the surgery may have taken longer without it, and she wouldn't have to undergo the stress of another MRI later on during her hospital stay. Luckily she didn't have any residual effects at all — I was so relieved when I heard her talk.”
 
Giving back
Elena healed very quickly, and she was able to go home March 11. She was back to school for shortened days by March 17 and gradually was able to spend the whole day at school.
Since her surgery she has done quite a lot.
This year Elena received the Superintendent's Award, given at a ceremony to one student from each school in Milford.
On Sept. 5, 2011, six months post-surgery, she ran in the Stratton-Faxon Kids' Fun Run in New Haven, a half-mile run, for the second time and beat her previous year's time. She is signed up to run again this year Sept. 2, and is considering running the 5K instead of the half mile.
Elena also does karate and sign language in an after-school program, walked in a state food alergy awareness walk — she’s alergic to peanuts — and made baby hats and fleece blankets for the Neonatal ICU at Bridgeport Hospital, where her mother works.
She also volunteers at the Milford Animal Shelter.
With Fiore and her brother Kyle, she hiked up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire in July.
She is a lacrosse player, and although she couldn't play in 2011, she played this spring season.
And she’s already thanking the people who helped her back to health.
“She wanted to do something to ‘give back’ to Yale Childrens' Hospital and decided to hold a fundraiser at her school to benefit the Child Life Program at Yale,” Janice said. “Elena held a Mismatch Day at school — each kid brought in a dollar and wore a crazy mismatched outfit. It was held last May and she did it again this year in April. In all she has raised about $775 and donated it all to the program.”