Caden, a Former Patient, Is Now Supporting Children’s Hospital Los Angeles
On Oct. 22, 2022, Caden McMullin walked up to the podium at the Witherbee Auditorium on the grounds of the Los Angeles Zoo. He was there to give the keynote speech at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Junior Ambassadors Conference, reflecting on a period of his life he doesn’t remember, because he was too young.
The story he shared was a remarkable one: Had Caden, as a fetus and newborn, not received treatment at the hospital, it’s unlikely he would have been standing there that day.
Before he was born, Caden was diagnosed with a fast-growing tumor called a cervical teratoma on his neck. At birth, the tumor was larger than his head and weighed one-third of his small 6-pound frame. But experts at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles were ready for him. While Caden was in utero, a multidisciplinary team of specialists had created a highly orchestrated plan to safely and swiftly move Caden from the nearby hospital where he was born to CHLA.
“There were probably no less than 20 providers in the operating room, ready to handle any contingency or emergency that could happen,” recalls Caden’s mom, Candace. “It was a very well thought out plan.”
A roller coaster of emotions
Candace and her husband, Eric, had several months to prepare for that moment. During a routine 20-week ultrasound, the technician noticed something unusual and urged the couple to see a specialist. They started asking around for recommendations and chose the Fetal-Maternal Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where a team led by Director David Miller, MD, diagnosed the teratoma and began to oversee and coordinate Candace’s prenatal care.
With the due date approaching and the tumor rapidly growing, it became clear Candace would need a special Caesarean section called a modified exit procedure. Two days before the Fourth of July in 2007, Caden was removed from the womb with the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta, which allowed oxygen to continue to flow as neonatology, respiratory therapy, and ear, nose and throat experts worked quickly to open the airway that was being compressed by the tumor.
“This type of multidisciplinary collaboration is something done at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles all the time. You have to plan for every possible scenario and be ready to act on a solution just right for that patient,” says Philippe Friedlich, MD, MSEpi, MBA, Chief of the Division of Neonatology and co-Director of the Fetal and Neonatal Institute, who was part of Caden’s care team. “It’s what we do best.”
Once an airway was secured, the umbilical cord was cut, and Caden was transported to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to undergo surgery. The procedure to excise the tumor went smoothly, and a sample of the cells was sent to the laboratory for testing. Then, the pathology results came back.
“We were told it’s rare to have this type of tumor in the first place but then to find out it was cancerous? It was unexpected and just a roller coaster of emotions,” says Caden’s dad, Eric.
Head and neck teratomas occur in 1 out of every 40,000 to 50,000 births. “Only a small percentage of them are malignant,” says Leo Mascarenhas, MD, MS, Deputy Director of the Cancer and Blood Disease Institute at CHLA. “What made Caden’s case highly unusual was the tumor’s large size, its location and the dramatic way that he had to be delivered. Furthermore, targeting cancer in a newborn comes with extraordinary challenges of its own.”
Dr. Mascarenhas started Caden on chemotherapy right away, developing a treatment plan that was strong enough to destroy the cancer but one that a tiny baby could tolerate.
Caden completed two rounds of chemo in the hospital—handling the treatment better than anyone expected—and was able to go home for the first time in his life shortly before Halloween.
To completely wipe out the cancer cells, two more outpatient rounds of chemotherapy followed before the lab work came back clean.
For years, the McMullins visited Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for Caden’s annual checkups. A decade went by without any complications, and when he was 10 years old, Caden was officially in remission.
Candace and Eric marvel at how far their son, now 16, has come. He’s an active high school sophomore at Loyola High School—just a few miles south from CHLA’s Sunset campus—who loves all sports, especially baseball, skiing and hiking. And they’re especially proud that he’s giving back to the hospital by raising funds and awareness in his community through the CHLA Junior Ambassadors program.
“The best part is representing Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and sharing my story to show what a special place it is,” says Caden. “I hope people will appreciate the one-of-a-kind care that results from so many different specialists working together, plus the cutting-edge research that happens at the same time.
“For me personally,” he adds, “I basically owe my life and overall good health to CHLA.”
Where amazing things happen
Supporting CHLA is a family affair for the McMullins. In 2022, they participated in the hospital’s community fundraiser Walk and Play L.A., and before Caden became a Junior Ambassador, Candace was a member of the hospital’s Spiritual Care Guild for several years. These days, she and Eric donate to two areas that hold a special place in their hearts: neonatology and oncology.
“To help an institution like this in your city, where these amazing things can happen, is a fairly easy thing to do,” says Eric.
“Had we not gone to Children’s Hospital,” says Candace, “I believe that would have diminished Caden’s chance at survival.”
Even after all these years and treating hundreds, if not thousands, of patients since then, doctors still remember Caden and light up at the mention of his name. Working at a pediatric medical institution means clinicians often watch families go home with their child, but they don’t always know how that patient is doing later on in life.
Seeing Caden in his purple Junior Ambassador shirt and out in the community on behalf of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles has been tremendously gratifying for his care team.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” says Dr. Friedlich, who holds the Teresa and Byron Pollitt Family Chair in Fetal and Neonatal Medicine. “His family had so much courage during this frightening ordeal, and to know that Caden is now healthy and has a bright future, that is a true message of hope.”