Tuesday, February 27, 2018 1:20 pm
Brain tumors almost killed him, now diver a state qualifier
JAKE FOX | The (Muncie) Star Press
MUNCIE -- The headache began on a Tuesday in April three years ago. Delta freshman diver Sam Bennett was in his third-period class of the sixth grade when his brain started to warn him it had some unwelcome visitors.
Bennett never was a complainer. Tough it out, his parents always told him, because most of the time it's nothing serious. He had gone to school with strep throat before because he knew it wouldn't do any good to whine about it.
This time, though, his splitting headache wasn't getting better. This time was different.
Bennett went home and told his mom, who took his temperature, dismissed it and sent him to diving practice that night. He'd be fine, like always. But the next morning when she went to wake him up for school, his temperature was 102 and his speech was foggy. He woke up in the middle of the following night to learn his fever had spiked to 104.
His parents took him to the doctor for tests that showed nothing. It's probably viral, they said, and to come back in a week if it wasn't getting better. It didn't, and the Bennetts found themselves at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital and in the back of an ambulance to Riley Hospital for Children later that evening.
Brain tumors. Two of them. And after they removed the one in the back, the one in the center of Bennett's brain reared its ugly head.
"There are basically four ventricles in your brain that pass fluid through the brain," one of Bennett's neurosurgeons told his parents, tears in her eyes. "This mass is pressing against one of them. One of two things are going to happen if we don't do something immediately: The mass is going to explode, or it's going to burst one of the ventricles. Either way it's game over."
* * *
Four-foot-seven, 70 pounds.
Bennett was a small sixth-grader. He's still pretty small now. So when his temperature skyrocketed, his mom was giving him one tablet of ibuprofen at a time to treat his headache.
It was Monday, a week after the headache began, when Bennett went to the doctor. Blood work was negative but the pain had the Bennetts at Ball Memorial by Wednesday. A CT scan showed the mass in the back of Bennett's brain.
"The doctor in the ER at Ball wanted to see us, and I remember him walking up -- I'm a body language guy -- and he put his head down," said Bennett's father, Jon. "He said, 'This is the worst part of the job.' He told us about the mass and that an ambulance was on its way.
"This is within a week. We think he has the flu and now we're heading to Riley thinking what in the world is going on."
Upon arrival, Bennett went from ibuprofen to a heavy dose of morphine. An MRI revealed the second abscess in the center of the brain.
Fortunately, both masses were benign, and doctors decided they would remove the tumor in the back and try to treat the other with antibiotics. Bennett began successful surgery about 6 a.m. on Thursday.
"They said they cut the first one open and it kind of oozed out, as gross as that may sound. It was an easier surgery," Bennett said. "I was in the hospital for eight days after that first surgery . On the eighth day they took me in to get an MRI, and because I started feeling better, they thought I was probably doing better."
Quite the contrary. The second tumor had doubled in size, now larger than a golf ball. And because of its location in the center of Bennett's brain, antibiotics couldn't reach it.
The neurosurgeon pulled his parents into the hallway and told them he had to get to surgery now. She said they had already moved other surgeries and informed other patients that something this serious couldn't wait another minute.
"When somebody tells you that one of the people you love the most in the world is gonna die if you don't do something, it's pretty intense," Jon said.
"It was all in God's hands at that point. And fortunately, God provided some of the best neurosurgeons in the world to take care of him. It was the most peace I've ever had in my life, because I couldn't do anything and I knew he would be covered either way."
They used a Da Vinci surgical device (basically a softened needle) to remove the infection and then filled the area with antibiotics. The surgery was a success.
"I'll never forget, he woke up and was hysterical at first, then looked at me and said, 'Dad, I'm hungry,'" Jon said. "We knew at that point he was cured and everything was gonna be OK."
Bennett was in the hospital for seven more days after surgery, which put him at two and a half weeks total. He was hooked up to 11 IVs and PICC lines because some of them were giving him allergic reactions.
He wasn't allowed to eat much. Just a little thing of Jell-O each day.
Bennett was 60 pounds when he left the hospital. But he was alive.
* * *
The last week Bennett spent in Riley was about monitoring his progress and physical therapy.
He had started diving in the sixth grade after his mom convinced him to try it, and was loving it. So he was mad when the doctors told him he would be out for a while. Bennett watched the 2012 London Olympic diving events three times to get his fix.
It wasn't until his first physical therapy session that Bennett realized he was in worse shape than he thought.
"I was laying in bed, this chick walks in and asks if I can sit up," Bennett said. "I had to like force myself up, which is normally not a problem. Then I had my mom on one side and the nurse on the other. I had to take two steps and then two steps back to my bed and lay down. I was exhausted after that."
He did other exercises like climbing a small stepladder, shooting a mini basketball and riding a tricycle.
Bennett tried to go back to school and finish his sixth-grade year, but he just couldn't do it. Loud noises and lights really bothered him. From beginning to end, the recovery process lasted about six months.
He got the clear to play around in the water in June -- something he said resembled "putting a dog on a trampoline" -- but didn't get back on the board until July. Frankly, Bennett's parents were concerned about him diving again because they never did figure out exactly what caused the masses in his brain.
His case later became a study for the IU School of Medicine.
"We didn't think it was concussions or anything from blunt trauma, but we were concerned," Jon said. "Ever since he was a little guy, he just liked doing flips. He tried soccer when he was 4 and he didn't play, he did cartwheels up and down the field. But we were hesitant. Fortunately Delta Middle School has a great coach that is a family guy that kept an eye on him and watched him."
Watching their son advance to state in his first season, Bennett's parents remembered seeing their frail little son in a hospital bed, and thought about the progress he's made since that stay at Riley.
"A lot of kids in situations like that don't have the opportunity, and don't have a Riley in their backyard," Jon said. "I go to West Africa 2-3 times a year to put in water systems. We could've easily been in Liberia that has no hospital close to a Riley, let alone an hour away. So we count our blessings, for sure.
"We don't take anything for granted."
* * *
Bennett didn't just win sectional this season, he dominated it. His finals score of 427.95 was 106 points better than second place.
Delta coach Laura Seibold-Caudill told him before the season started that he was good enough to win a sectional title.
"He has unbelievable talent, and there are no restrictions on him," said Seibold-Caudill, who was an All-American diver herself at Michigan State. "Meaning if you ask me, 'Could he win the state meet?' Yes, he could. 'Could he do it as early as next year?' Yes, he could.
"Now there are a lot of things that have to be done in between there to do it -- a lot of club work, some new dives, some harder dives, some harder training -- those are things that have to take place."
The craziest part about it is that Bennett didn't even plan on diving this year.
A former club coach "took the love out of it" in middle school and Bennett didn't want anything to do with it anymore. He was going to quit before eighth grade, but his parents convinced him to give it one more shot.
"I hated the sport. I couldn't stand it, I didn't want anything to do with it," he said. "Everybody walked up, 'Hey, how's diving?' 'I'm not doing it.' 'But why? You're so good.' 'No, I just hate it.' There was no point in doing it."
Bennett won conference as an eighth-grader, and decided that was his peak. He didn't dive at any point from then until the start of the high school year. Seibold-Caudill heard he wasn't going to come out and, well, that wasn't OK.
"I had the athletic director on him, I had all of our coaching staff, I told the kids on the team: 'You need to go talk to Sam Bennett,'" Seibold-Caudill said. "I told everybody. We just had everybody talking to him, and I didn't let up. I decided I wasn't taking no for an answer."
She even talked to Bennett's mom, who is an aide at the school. Bennett gives his coach about 50 percent of the credit for getting him to join.
The other half goes to his sister, Haley. She made a deal with him as a last-ditch effort right before the season started.
"Sam, if you dive a full season and try your best, I will dive next season with you," Haley told him. "I'm gonna stink, it's gonna be bad, but that's how important it is to me."
She just didn't want to see her brother waste his natural talent. Which is evident, as he has set both Delta freshman and school records this year.
Bennett shows up early to practice and stays late. He is also the biggest cheerleader on the team, pacing up and down the deck during a race. His mom also told Seibold-Caudill that he might be interested in going to college to dive.
He's got his passion back.
* * *
Bennett walks slowly toward the end of the board, picks up speed and jumps. He does a couple flips midair but the landing isn't as straight as he'd like.
"I have to get one bad one out of my system," he says, smiling, to diving coach Andra Pavich.
The two have been working together for three years now.
"Once he started realizing that it's not about competing or how well you do, it's about having fun, that's when he started enjoying it more and do a lot better," Pavich said.
Unless he showed you the scar underneath his dyed blond hair, you wouldn't even be able to tell what Bennett went through three years ago. He's a happy, talkative kid who usually has a smile on his face.
He doesn't have any lasting side effects -- just some occasional problems with staying focused and getting lightheaded when he stands up too fast.
Three years removed from his deathbed, Bennett is adjusting his way through his first year of high school and enjoying a run to the state swimming meet. Living life to the fullest, because he knows how quickly it can almost be taken away.
"I guess I'm lucky God was with us," Bennett said. "It was one of those things where we started to take stuff for granted. Once that did happen, I guess it was exactly what we needed."