Wishes Come True: Emile Greer, Neurosurgical Patient Story
In December 2005, Emile Greer, then 12 years old, was diagnosed with a glial neuronal tumor the size of a large plum. That previous summer, while traveling through Colorado with his grandparents, Emile started experiencing pain throughout his body, particularly in the backs of his legs. Initially attributing it to the whitewater rafting activities he had just done in Colorado and his active participation in tennis, his mom was not overly concerned, but sent him to an orthopedic surgeon as a precaution. Because his pain both persisted and intensified, Emile was then put on a regimen of physical therapy for several weeks. “His pain got so bad that he could not sit during school; he had to stand in the back of the classroom,” said Cecilia Greer, Emile’s mother.
Then one day in November, Emile told his mom he had a headache, could not feel his tongue or fingertips, and was having difficulty talking. "That was really scary," Emile said. "All of a sudden I couldn’t feel parts of my face and I couldn’t move my tongue, and that totally sucked because I love to talk." That same night, after being sent home from the emergency room without any answers, Emile developed an excruciating headache. Two days later, during another visit to the orthopedic surgeon, the doctor, upon learning of Emile’s most recent symptoms, requested an MRI. As they waited a few days for his scheduled MRI, the Greers celebrated both Thanksgiving and the birthday of the youngest member of their family, Juliet, who was turning 7 at the time. “When we celebrated his sister’s birthday, it was a beautiful fall day, there were piles of leaves everywhere, and because Emile is so warm, friendly and witty, he spontaneously decided to entertain the girls at the birthday party, just clowning around. It was so sweet. The other moms at the party were joking about wanting to rent him for their parties, and all the girls were loving him. The contrast between that and 48 hours later when we had the MRI done, seeing those images of the tumor, it was heart-wrenching,” said Cecilia.
However, at that time, Emile was not aware he had a tumor. "My mom and dad didn’t tell me about the tumor until we met with Dr. Dias a few days before the operation, so there was a period of time when my parents knew about the tumor and I didn’t. I remember this one day, I went to the movies, [to see the fourth Harry Potter movie], and as I left the house, I looked back and saw my mom standing in the doorway waving goodbye. I’ll never forget that look on her face. She looked so scared, but she looked like she was trying to hide it. She looked at me as if I were leaving not just for a few hours but for way longer. I remember thinking, 'Jeez, what’s with her? I’m just going to the movies, I’ll be back in two hours.'"
Two weeks later, Emile had resection surgery at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa., to remove his glial neuronal tumor. His neurosurgeon, Mark S. Dias, MD, FAANS, is described by Emile as a "loveable dude," and described by Cecilia as, “Emile’s main man in life … he’s the best of the best.” However, because of complications from his first surgery, Emile needed a second surgery to release fluid from his brain. The oncology team wanted to put Emile on chemotherapy or radiation treatments right away. “I kept trying to put the brakes on those treatments, I didn’t want to wreck my 12-year-old’s body if it wasn’t an absolutely life-or-death matter. With my stalling, four or five weeks went by, and we sought second opinions from other oncologists.” At that point, Dr. Dias suggested a post-surgery, follow-up MRI, which showed improvement in regard to both his brain and his spine, and they collectively decided to take a wait-and-see-approach with regularly scheduled MRIs, in order to forego chemotherapy all together.
Two years later, in 2007, a cherry-sized tumor had grown back in Emile’s brain, at which point he underwent gamma knife surgery. During this time, the Make-A-Wish Foundation got in touch with Emile and his family to see if he was interested in making a wish. Emile’s initial wish was to play tennis with renowned tennis player, Andre Agassi. "Thinking about what I wanted to wish for, that was such a surreal feeling," Emile said. "I felt like I was a little kid again." However, a few weeks after the wish was made, the foundation reported back to the Greer family that Agassi’s public relations team denied the request. They were told that because Agassi pours so many resources into his K-12 school in Las Vegas, the Andre Agassi College Prepatory Academy (founded by Agassi in 2001), he does not typically grant outside requests. “We didn’t hold it against him at all,” said Cecilia.
The foundation then asked Emile to make another wish. “Emile went down the list of other tennis players that he’d like to meet, but decided that if it wasn’t Agassi, he didn’t want to do the celebrity thing. So he chose to go another route and wished to go to Alaska and see the glaciers and the wildlife.” Shortly after, the Make-A-Wish Foundation booked the Greer family on a cruise to explore the inside passage of Alaska. “It was amazing,” Cecilia said, noting that they experienced the full VIP treatment during the trip and were able to stay in the most luxurious cabin, have dinner with the captain and participate in off-site excursions free of charge (such as a private helicopter ride). “Every day, we’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, good thing Agassi said no, we wouldn’t be here doing this.’”
However, on the last night of the cruise, the Greer family experienced a chance encounter while eating dinner. Sitting next to them, was an older couple who began to inquire about Emile’s Make-A-Wish button that he was wearing at the time. They asked where the Greers were from, mentioned that they had seen them on the boat throughout the week, and wanted to make it a point to introduce themselves. “They were so nice, and we were engaged in conversation, so I said, as a way to show how incredibly grateful we were, ‘This cruise has been a dream, and we can’t get over how wonderful it was. Every night, as a joke, we’ve been saying it’s a good thing Agassi said no, because this ended up being his wish. It’s been an incredible week.’” The gentleman then inquired about why Agassi said no. Cecilia mentioned how he didn’t say no directly, but that it just didn’t work out. “Well,” the man said. “My son has been Agassi’s best friend since third grade and is his personal attorney. If your boy still wants to play with Agassi, I could arrange that easily.” His son, Perry Rogers, is Agassi’s well-known business partner, lawyer (at the time) and oldest friend.
They exchanged information, but Cecilia warned Emile and her other children to not get their hopes up. “I didn’t want to set them up for disappointment, but sure enough, the next morning there was a message from him on my cell phone. It said that Andre would be delighted to fly us out to Las Vegas so Emile can play tennis with him.” The uncanny circumstances were not lost on the Greers: “If you know the inside passage of Alaska, [you know] it’s a tiny fraction of Alaska. That cruise ship goes up and down a tiny passage every week between June and September with 2,500 passengers on board every time.” Looking back on that time, Emile felt there were larger forces at play. "That’s when you start to think there’s someone up above moving the pieces around," Emile said. "Because how on earth could we have sat down at that restaurant next to those people at that specific time?"
Upon arriving at the tennis center in Las Vegas, Emile was feeling anxious.
"I was so nervous," he said. "Everything felt like it was happening so fast, and then I saw this guy walk over from the other side of the court, and I’m thinking, 'Oh my god, it’s him.' And he came over, smiling, and he stuck out his hand and said, 'Hi, I’m Andre.' Then we hit the ball around for a while, warmed up our strokes and played a set. He beat me 6-1, and he definitely let me win one game. Whenever I think back to that summer, I still can’t believe it actually happened. How on earth did I really get two wishes for the price of one?"
Although Emile had to undergo a second round of gamma knife surgery in 2009 to remove another small tumor, six years later, there has been no tumor regrowth. Since his diagnosis, this past year marked the first time that Emile was able to go without an MRI. Notably, during the same time Emile was still getting regularly scheduled MRIs (every six months), Dr. Dias revealed to the Greers that he too had been treated for prostate cancer. “He told us all about it. At that point, we had been friends for almost ten years —we’d talk about his own cancer, surgery and recovery like we were sharing recipes and then move on to Emile’s.”
In May 2015, Emile graduated from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in music and a concentration in composition. Emile comes from a family of musicians; his mom, Cecilia, is a professional pianist, and his dad, Taylor, is a professor of music theory at Pennsylvania State University. His brother (François, who plays the piano) and sister (Juliet, who plays the violin) are also musically inclined; although François received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math and physics and is currently a PhD candidate at Stanford University, and Juliet is in high school.
The future is very bright for Emile. He spent the past summer teaching English in Thailand and plans to teach SAT preparation classes after returning home, and he will eventually be applying to MFA programs for creative writing. To sum up her family’s long journey, Emile’s mother offered her incredibly positive outlook:
“It’s one of those life experiences where you have to deal with what’s on your plate; there’s no other option, and you have to make the best of it. So many amazing things have happened because of this. The Make-A-Wish story is unreal, but also meeting people like [Dr.] Mark Dias and the whole medical staff at Hershey — we’ve been exposed to such extraordinary human beings, and that’s a gift we otherwise would not have had. Not to mention the incredible community support when we were going through that … It’s amazing how compassionate and generous Americans are — I’m French — so I sound like an outsider, but I always said If I ever wrote book I would not call it Emile’s Illness, I would call it, A Story of Human Compassion.”
About Neurosurgery Awareness Month
Every year, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) observes Neurosurgery Awareness during the month of August. In 2015, the AANS Neurosurgery Awareness Month will focus on the neurosurgeons themselves. Throughout the month, the AANS will disseminate materials that look at the men and women involved in neurosurgical practice, forming a broader picture of those who have committed their lives to this most elite practice. To find more materials regarding this year's observance, click here.