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FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — Leslie Maner learned at an early age not to take her life for granted.
Her mother, Donna Maner Kiefer, has seen to it. She has made sure that for the 34-year span of Leslie's life, her daughter has acknowledged the roles of God, Boston Children's Hospital and Dr. James Middleton in overcoming what science would define as insurmountable odds.
But those odds hadn't gone up against the likes of Leslie's team of doctors in Boston and her determined Florence pediatrician.
When Leslie was 19 months old, her mother took the concerns of Leslie's Sunday school teacher to heart and made an appointment with Middleton, the family pediatrician. The family lived in Haleyville.
The teacher told her she'd noticed Leslie was walking with her feet too far apart.
Kiefer said she'd noticed subtle oddities as well, such as Leslie falling to one side and holding onto cabinet knobs as she walked around the kitchen.
She took the first available appointment.
Middleton took a look into Leslie's eyes with his light and reacted immediately.
"He said, 'Oh, we've got to get her to the hospital right away,' " Kiefer recalls.
Middleton had found pressure against Leslie's eyes, indicative of a brain tumor.
He was correct. Tests at Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in Florence confirmed Middleton's suspicion: medula blastoma, a tumor in the back of Leslie's head, at the base. Leslie's skull had never hardened where her soft spot was.
Kiefer said she vividly remembers getting the news.
"He said he felt like my daughter had a cancerous brain tumor," Kiefer said. "I took his hand, looked him right in the eyes and said, 'send my daughter where you'd send your own daughter.' "
Two hours later, Middleton had done the research and gave Kiefer two choices: Los Angeles or Boston children's hospitals.
"I told Dr. Middleton that I didn't want choices, that I wanted him to tell us where to go," she said. "He didn't hesitate, just told me he'd help us get to Boston."
Middleton went beyond the call of duty, Kiefer said, and even arranged for the plane's four rows of seats in front of and behind Leslie to be vacant.
"He set it up for no people to be around Leslie for her own protection so she couldn't catch any germs that would prevent her from having surgery right away," Kiefer said. "The royal treatment continued in Atlanta where we were escorted off the plane and served a meal before continuing on to Boston. No one was sitting around us on that flight, either."
At Boston Children's Hospital, the family met the team of five doctors assembled for the lengthy, delicate surgery.
Middleton had been honest with the family. Leslie's condition was critical. Middleton had even arranged for all of Leslie's insurance and medical information to be at the hospital ahead of the family so once they arrived, they were directed straight to the fourth floor for consultation with doctors. Time was of the essence.
"We couldn't believe how systematic the whole process was," Kiefer said. "Dr. Middleton had just arranged everything. He'll never know how soothing that was to this mother's heart."
Leslie's 10-hour surgery, where part of her skull was removed, yielded no results. The tumor couldn't be removed. Her only option was to enter a brain tumor research group that was trying high doses of radiation. The treatment was the highest known dosage at 6,000 rads. Nineteen-month-old Leslie withstood six weeks of radiation at 5,700 rads.
The Boston neurosurgeon said the odds of another tumor were high. After surviving 10 years, the surgeon gave Leslie the all-clear and there was no more contact with doctors related to her case. Physically, the radiation took a toll, leaving her at 4 feet, 7 inches tall with extremely thin hair in the back of her head.
The family had moved to Decatur where Leslie attended private school and in high school began working at Wal-Mart. She graduated and continued in her job.
Recently, Leslie and her mom moved back to Florence. Kiefer's longtime friend, Carlene Longshore, told her Dr. Middleton was alive and well at Merrill Gardens Assisted Living facility.
Longshore also told Middleton that Leslie Maner was alive and well, and living in Florence.
A reunion at Merrill Gardens took place last month.
"He hugged me for the longest time and was so glad to see me," Leslie said. "He made me promise to come see him on his (91st) birthday, Sept. 16. I told him I'd do better than that. I'd bring him a cake."
The tearful reunion between the two produced many "thank-you's" and long stints of hand-holding.
"I told him thank you for helping me stay alive," Leslie said. "He looked at me and said, 'I helped a little but you know who really saved your life — God.' "
Leslie finds irony in the fact that Middleton, some 32 years after her ordeal, considers her a miracle when "he was my miracle."
"God spared my life, but he definitely used Dr. Middleton," she said. "He's still the same special man he was when I was 19 months old. He's just special to me. Always will be."
Middleton said seeing Leslie again rates right up there as "one of the biggest surprises of my life."
"It just set my mind awhirl," Middleton said. "That brain tumor of hers, it was an absolute rarity back then. I knew that Boston was the top area in the U.S. to get treatment. In my mind, we didn't have a choice."
Middleton admits he feared the worst in Leslie's case but, "If she was going to have any chance at all, I knew she needed to get there, and fast. I was probably a little pushy."
He said he lost track of Leslie and her family through the years. But he often wondered about the petite-framed toddler.
"It was a tremendous pleasure to see her again after all these years," he said. "She's an intelligent woman who works and has had a good life. I can't describe how happy that makes me."
Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/
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