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October 14, 2011

Head Strong: Emergency Surgery Helped Make Daniel Haber the Man He is Today, Including A Volunteer

By Evan Drexler,
Cornell Athletics Communications

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Daniel Haber is waiting.

It is a cool September night in Ithaca, and the Big Red's sophomore striker is standing on the sidelines at midfield watching his teammates battle local rival Binghamton. In a matter of moments, he'll be in the game, ready to unleash his skills on the unsuspecting Bearcats defense.

Haber wiggles his arms to keep them loose, hops softly to maintain his energy and stretches his legs to ensure his quads are ready to perform. All he needs now is the referee's whistle.

Before Haber can get into the game, assistant coach Joe Schneck comes over to him and provides some last-second encouragement.

“Daniel!” Schneck calls out, his voice cutting through the night's crisp air. “Be dangerous.” Then he repeats his advice for emphasis. “Be dangerous.”
Haber nods. He knows all about dangerous.

Dangerous was the bacterial infection that could have killed him. Dangerous was the infection creeping toward his brain. Dangerous was the craniotomy he went through without any notice, the surgery that saved his life and that left him with the ear-to-ear scar on his scalp.

Haber is plenty dangerous on the field and has been since he arrived last fall. But soccer is just a game.

Haber has dealt with life and death.

* * *

Seven years earlier, Daniel Haber is waiting.

He is sitting in the emergency room at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in his hometown of Toronto. The clock has counted off five hours at this point, maybe six. Or maybe it's been seven. The time all blends together on the June 2004 evening.

Haber, all of 12 years old, is with his parents, and they are trying desperately to pass the time. They play cards. They take in the first game of the Stanley Cup Final between Calgary and Tampa Bay.

Waiting with them are kids with minor maladies: broken arms, fevers, dislocated shoulders. Patients coming into the hospital with more urgent problems – breathing difficulties, chest pains – jump Haber in the hospital's triage line.

After all, why would the hospital suspect anything was seriously wrong with Haber?

All he had was a bump on his forehead.

* * *

The story starts with a sinus infection.

About two weeks earlier, Haber was suffering from normal sinus issues. A trip to the doctor, a little medicine, and he recovered fine. His mother, Reena Berlind, noted that even though Haber's sinuses were cleared up, he still wasn't acting like his normal self.

Haber loved nothing more than sports as a child. He played center at the second-highest level of hockey for his age group and was involved with a highly ranked club soccer team. He was athletic, energetic, healthy and happy.

A week after the sinus infection cleared up, while suited up for his club soccer squad, Haber noticed the bump on his forehead when he headed a ball. It didn't hurt, he said, but it definitely felt like something was there.

Haber and his father, Lorie, investigated the bump in the bathroom mirror later that night.

“It was almost like a half-golf ball, a tender bump sticking out of the center of my forehead,” Haber said. “Just a bump that we didn't know where it came from.”

Haber went to the doctor's office on a Friday. The doctor said the bump would probably go away on its own, but if it didn't disappear after the long weekend, Haber should come back.

By Tuesday, with the bump still big as ever on his forehead, Haber returned to the doctor. He checked out of school for his midday appointment with his pediatrician, thinking he'd be back in the class by the end of the school day.

But once the doctor was stumped, he suggested they get the bump examined further at the hospital.

So Haber and his parents sat in the emergency room watching time pass, keeping one eye on the Stanley Cup Final and another on their card games.

After hours of delay, Haber was moved into a private room. It took another 45 minutes for a doctor to see him there. When he finally got the attention he needed, the hospital wound up calling the head of neurosurgery back from the parking garage where he was about to go home for the night.
Haber, the neurosurgeon decided, needed an MRI.

When they finally identified the problem, the news was much more urgent than the family thought. Haber had a condition called Potts' puffy tumor, a rare bacterial infection seen less than a half dozen times per year at SickKids.

The infection had grown from Haber's initial sinus problems and was moving ominously through his skull and toward his brain.

Brain damage was weeks, maybe days in his future.

Bottom line: The golf-ball-sized cyst had to come out immediately before it broke through the lining of his brain.

Reena starts to cry when she recounts the evening.

“I tried to put on a very brave face,” she said. “And I said to Daniel, 'I think you're going to need surgery tonight.'”

His 12th birthday was just five days earlier.

“Originally I was just sort of shocked and confused at this point,” Haber said. “I had no idea what was going on. … I started to cry. I asked my mom, 'Is there anything else they can do? Is there any other way?' She said no.”

It only took fewer than three hours to go from the first doctor seeing him to surgery. Wheeled into the operating room wearing a blue hospital gown, Haber was taken aback by the large machines surrounding him. He didn't have much of a chance to take it all in.

The mask went over his face.

The gas flowed into his nose.

He was out.

* * *

More waiting.

Reena Berlind and Lorie Haber spent five hours, the longest five hours of their life, feeling helpless while Daniel underwent the craniotomy.

“We stared into space for five hours,” Reena said.

“We felt like we had a vise on our chest,” Lorie added.

A craniotomy involves sawing off part of the skull. The doctors went into Haber's forehead, removed the cyst and reattached his skull cap using two small titanium plates and more than 60 metal stitches.

When the surgery was complete, Haber's parents went to see him in his room not knowing what to expect. They approached his bedside and saw his head covered with bags and wrappings, protecting his still-raw wounds and fresh stitches from the open air.

Haber opened his eyes. He had just one question for his parents.

Who won the hockey game?

“I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing,” Reena said, concerned that her son would have brain damage after the surgery. “When he said that, it was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

The surgery had gone smoothly, and now Haber had two weeks of recovery to deal with. On heavy painkillers and antibiotics, he slept through most of the first day after.

The second day, he woke up with his eyes swollen shut and spent 24 hours living like a blind person. Reena walked her son around the hospital, his IV stand in tow, describing things she saw for her son.

On the fourth day, he finally got to walk around on his own, and he saw the image of his swollen head in the mirror.

“I looked in the mirror and screamed,” Haber said. “I thought, 'Who is that in my body?”'

During the recovery, nurses were coming in to check on him every hour. Doctors came multiple times per day and gave him heavy-duty antibiotics to make sure the infection didn't recur.

“You put a campfire out and then you've got to keep flooding it to make sure the embers aren't burning underneath the ground,” Lorie said. “You're basically flooding him with antibiotics to make sure any residue of the infection was gone.”

Reena never left the hospital until Haber did, and he got some other friendly visitors during his stay. His sixth-grade teacher brought him a copy of The Hockey News. His summer camp counselor gifted him a pizza-sized cookie. A friend of his mother's came bearing deli meats.

Even his club soccer team brought in the championship trophy they won in his absence. They dedicated it to Haber.

The support of the doctors combined with the support of friends and family had him returning home after two weeks.

But the recovery still wasn't done. Haber needed nurse-administered, hour-long IV drips at home three times a day to make sure the infection did not return. The worst part about the infusions, he said, was that they tethered him to the house.

He was finishing up sixth grade at the time and was able to attend his graduation, and when he briefly visited class one day earlier in his recovery, he saw surprised looks on his classmates' faces. Rumors had gotten around that he was dying.

Though that was far from the truth, Haber still wasn't in perfect health and always had to come home for IV sessions.

One evening he went to a party with friends, came home for a 9:30 p.m. infusion and was back at the party by 10:30.

“He never once complained,” Reena said. “We just made it work in our lives.”

Haber knew that complaining was pointless. In the end, that stressful, chaotic night and the months of recovery were well worth it.

“That doctor saved my life,” he said. “Everywhere that I am mentally, athletically, emotionally, the ability to act as a normal person and live a normal life would not have been possible if they hadn't caught it at that moment.”

* * *

The patients at the SickKids cancer ward are waiting, too.

They're waiting for a doctor to tell them their cancer is in remission, waiting for a cure or waiting only to hear worse news.

Daniel Haber couldn't let them wait alone.

In the months and years following his surgery at the same hospital, Haber got back to a normal life. He returned to soccer at the end of that summer and started hockey again in the winter.

“The first time I saw him head a soccer ball in the fall, I almost fainted,” Lorie said.

Though he grew frustrated and unhappy with soccer and took three years off, Haber eventually returned to the sport in his junior year of high school with his passion reignited and wound up earning a spot on the Cornell roster. He used his craniotomy as the subject of an admission essay.

But he knows many of the kids at the hospital that saved his life won't get the chance to return to normalcy.

At age 13, as a project before his bar mitzvah, Haber tried to volunteer at SickKids. They said he was too young.

At age 16, he tried again, only wanting to be a friend to the young patients. Again, too young.

Finally, this summer, Haber was allowed to spend time in the hospital's cancer ward. He says building relationships with the patients was one of the highlights of his life.

“I felt great just to be able to help,” Haber said. “I don't remember whether anyone was there to be with me at the time [of my recovery]. It would have been nice to have someone I could connect with.”

So Haber became a presence in the lives of these patients, hoping to brighten their days in a way his weren't. He took them to a place in the hospital called Marty's Lounge, a room with video games and air hockey where the kids could just be kids.

He played games with them. Sometimes he just talked. Sometimes he just listened.
“I really connected with them,” Haber said. “The memories will never leave me.”

He also had a personal interaction with a 12-year-old boy who was the son of his parents' friend. The boy, Adrian, was an avid soccer player and also having surgery on his head. Haber couldn't wait to meet him.

Adrian, Haber said, was in a sad place and worried about the surgery. All Haber had to do was tell his own story, a story that provided a huge emotional turning point for Adrian.

And he provided Adrian with a lesson he has taken from his ordeal.

“I told him, 'It's not that it's good that it happened to you, but you'll learn from it. You will be OK in a matter of time. … Take this and learn from it as much as you can. Learn from yourself.'”


* * *

Daniel Haber's wait is over.

Shortly after Schneck advises Haber to be dangerous, play is stopped and the referee permits Haber to enter.

For Binghamton, danger strikes. Haber creates havoc on the field and is rewarded for his efforts with two assists. Cornell goes on to win 4-0.

Haber has been spectacular all season. He leads the team in almost every offensive category: shots, shots on goal, goals, assists, and points. He won Ivy League Player of the Week in September.

And none of it would have been possible without a surgery that saved his life seven years earlier.

Though it took him three years to get comfortable talking about the surgery – he used to wear his hair long to hide the scar – all his teammates now know the story. It's still a sensitive subject for him, but Haber is willing to tell the tale to an open ear.

It's a very personal thing to share, but in the long run it changed his entire outlook on life. It helped him become the man he is today, it made him more generous and willing to help others, and it helps him focus on soccer, his greatest passion.

“That's the biggest thing that had ever happened [to me],” Haber said. “It was the most impactful. It affected the way I thought, the way I saw my friends, the world around me, how much I appreciate life. I'm doing this because I love it now. I love that feeling of connecting with other players. It's what I live for.”