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The surgeon who wouldn't say no
Taylor's bold doctor has worked wonders on other patients
By Amy R. Mack | Daily Herald Staff

Kathy Lazzarini of Cary was told her daughter Samantha would die from the tumor in her brain when she was 6. Thanks to Dr. Robert Spetzler, she's now a healthy 17-year-old. Lazzarini shared her story with Laurie Radtke.


Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

The tickling fingers of sister Julia, 11, make Matthew Hoyda, 14, burst into a smile in their backyard in Sugar Grove.


Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Laurie Radtke of Johnsburg shares a laugh with 7-year-old Taylor while waiting to see a doctor.


Mark Black | Staff Photographer

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Published: 10/20/2007 11:56 PM

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Kathy Lazzarini knows the constant feeling of tension and dread that fills Laurie and Jeff Radtke as they fight to save their daughter's life.

The Cary mom was also told to prepare for her daughter to die.

And she, too, turned to Dr. Robert Spetzler, the Phoenix neurosurgeon who will take on the challenging operation to remove 7-year-old Taylor Radtke's brain tumor this week.

Lazzarini hadn't seen the news stories about the Johnsburg family's frantic quest to find someone willing to operate on their child. But her mother, who lives in Rolling Meadows, had. She realized she lived across the street from the parents of a Lake Zurich firefighter who works with Jeff Radtke and relayed her daughter's number for the Radtkes through them.

Earlier Coverage
Taylor Radtke
Seven-year-old Taylor Radtke, diagnosed with a rare tumor that threatens her vision and mobility, needs life-saving surgery that few doctors are willing to perform.
How you can help
DONATE - Donations for Taylor Radtke are being accepted at First Midwest Bank's Johnsburg branch, 3805 N. Johnsburg Road, and McHenry branch, 1308 N. Route 31. Funds raised will be put toward research, travel expenses and medical costs.
SEND A CARD - If you'd like to write the Radtkes a card, please send them courtesy of Amy Mack, Daily Herald, 385 Airport Road, Suite A, Elgin, IL 60123.

Laurie Radtke said the Cary schoolteacher's call -- one of many serendipitous things that have eased the family's panic -- was helpful as she sought the best options to save Taylor from an unusual brain tumor no other surgeon was willing to tackle.

"She knew how helpless, how hopeless we were feeling," Laurie Radtke said. "She told me he (Dr. Spetzler) is amazing. She told me all the small things I can do pre-surgery to help my daughter. I wrote down everything she said. It was so reassuring to hear from her, to talk to her."

Others helped by Spetzler also reached out after learning of Taylor's plight.

Sugar Grove mom Cathy Hoyda had also been told no one could help her son's rare form of epilepsy. Matthew is now 14 and is doing much better than when he had seven grand mal seizures a day.

Valerie Ward's parents had been told no one could remove the brain tumor discovered when she was 8 years old. But a man she calls a "miracle worker" did just that when she was 23. And now the Antioch woman is an architect and mother of four.

All found help at Barrow Neurological Institute and all reached out to the Radtkes to offer solace and hope during the scary days leading up to surgery for Taylor, which is scheduled for Thursday.

They agreed to share their stories to help other parents and patients know they should never give up -- no matter what medical professionals have told them.

Samantha Lazzarini

Just thinking about those difficult days stirred the fear, anxiety and distress anew, Kathy Lazzarini said.

"It brings it all back," she said, noting she had to regroup before returning Laurie Radtke's call. "I'm a teacher, and I had to make sure I calmed down first, kept my emotions in check."

Knowing how challenging and frightening the experience, she wanted to assure the Radtkes they're in good hands.

"Dr. Spetzler is cutting edge. He's aggressive and he's up on new technology," she said. "He'll do things other doctors won't necessarily try. Other doctors will say they can't do anything, and he will try something."

Samantha Lazzarini was 6 when she had what seemed to be bad flu symptoms. It turned out to be blood on the brain caused by what's called arteriovenous malformation (AVM.) The tangle of vessels threatened paralysis, coma or death.

Chicago-area doctors told the family that surgery was too risky. Fortunately, the family's pediatrician said doing nothing was not an option and suggested they do a national search.

Lazzarini's mother had seen an article about Spetzler, and they reached out. "What we liked was his confidence," Kathy Lazzarini said.

And they liked that he and members of his team made sure the Lazzarinis knew just what to expect.

Spetzler didn't pull punches. "He told us we needed to be flexible and he would never do anything to risk her life," Lazarrini said. "I felt her life was in good hands."

Those hands saved Stephanie twice. A growth spurt two years later triggered a return of the AVM, requiring several surgeries over several days to fix her. That was about 10 years ago and Samantha, now a 17-year-old high school junior, is doing great.

Like her mom, she thinks Taylor will get what she needs from a man she considers a hero.

"He saved my life," Samantha said. "I'd tell Taylor to be strong and not to worry, to believe she can handle it. And everything will be good.

"I cannot imagine what my life would be like without his help when other doctors couldn't or wouldn't."

Valerie Ward

It's a sentiment echoed by Val Ward, who was 23 when Spetzler agreed to remove the brain tumor no one else would touch. Plagued by seizures, headaches and vision issues, her quality of life had deteriorated.

"It was hell," the Antioch woman said. "I just wanted to die. No one in the entire country could touch it without me possibly losing my life. Dr. Spetzler was the only doctor who would try to help me.

"He was an amazing miracle for my life," Ward said. "I wouldn't be where I am today without him."

She had two surgeries over the course of a week and a third a year later. She suffered only a minor vision issue, went on to become an architect and now has a husband and four healthy children.

"I couldn't be happier," she said. "I hope Taylor's family gets the same help. He's amazing."

Matthew Hoyda

Cathy Hoyda would agree. Her son Matthew's seizures were so intense, she said, "You could be standing next to him, holding his elbow and he'd still end up on the floor."

His rare seizure disorder, hypothalamic hamartoma disorder, led the family to an international support group that, ultimately, led them to the Barrow Neurological Institute. They were fortunate to find a surgeon from Australia training doctors there and even more fortunate when Matthew was chosen as one of six patients.

He still has seizures every day, but they're much milder.

Hoyda said she thinks the Radtke family will find their experience at Barrow reassuring.

"We knew what was the plan, what was coming," Hoyda said. "There wasn't any time we were petrified.

"We just knew we were in good hands."

That's for sure, Val Ward said. "He is truly a miracle worker, performing results for people that no one else can do. I pray this little girl can be another name on his list of successes.

"I am, and I still can't believe it."