MedStar Health – It’s How We Treat People.
When Jessica Fritz noticed an unusual yellowing tint in her then 6-year-old son Triton’s complexion one day in 2017, she was wary of the clinicians in her town in Wyoming who were dismissing her concerns. She knew something wasn’t right, and demanded bloodwork be done.
Testing showed that Triton’s jaundiced appearance was caused by a cancerous liver tumor, which the doctors identified as Rhabdomyosarcoma. The tumor was blocking one of the ducts that usually empties bile into the liver. The tumor was so extensive it involved the pancreas as well as the liver and bile ducts. The backup of bile was causing his skin to turn yellow.
Triton underwent a year of chemotherapy. While his tumor responded, it would never go away completely.
“It came back on his liver in the exact same place,” says Mrs. Fritz. “We were devastated.”
Desperate Search for a Treatment
The Fritz family began to search for someone who had the expertise necessary to treat Triton’s rare form of cancer. They were running out of options. Running out of time.
“All of the doctors were telling us that Triton’s case was too high risk,” says Mrs. Fritz. “He needed surgery, but they didn’t have the expertise to handle such a surgery.” But not doing anything was not an option.
That’s when one of her physicians recommended they travel to Washington, D.C., to the MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute to see Thomas Fishbein, MD.
"We saw Dr. Fishbein who told us, 'of course there is something we can do for your son,'" says Mrs. Fritz.
“Triton had a lethal tumor for which there really is no cure,” says Dr. Fishbein. “Standard approaches could treat a tumor confined to the liver or pancreas, but never one that invaded both organs.
He needed a complete liver transplant along with a very complex procedure to remove the pancreas, all without violating the tumor. We believed that if we could give him a new liver, removing at the same time his old liver, bile duct, and pancreas, Triton would have a good chance of survival.” Dr. Fishbein noted that this complex procedure had never been done before for such a rare form of cancer, but it was Triton’s only option.
The second part of the procedure, called a Whipple, is a complex operation where a surgeon removes the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine, the gallbladder, and the bile duct. The remaining organs are then reattached to allow food to digest normally. Fortunately, as chief of Hepatobiliary Surgery and Transplantation, Dr. Fishbein was in a unique position of performing both operations commonly.
Waiting for a New Liver
On Nov. 9, 2018, Jessica Fritz, her husband, and her younger son left their two other children with grandparents, traveled several hundred miles to Washington, D.C., and checked Triton into MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. Triton and his parents spent many months between the hospital and the local Ronald McDonald House.
“Our strategy was to take care of Triton and manage his medical needs, while we listed him for a liver transplant,” says Dr. Fishbein.
Treating the Entire Family
The timing of Triton’s hospitalization meant that the family would be separated over hundreds of miles during the holiday season.
The hospital’s Child Life program played a huge role in bringing joy to the family during this especially challenging time. The program put on several holiday events, which Triton and his younger brother attended, including a Grinch cupcake decorating party, a party welcoming Santa, and a Valentine’s Day craft and cupcake party.
“The staff treated us more like family than anything. Our younger son was included in all the fun events and that helped us feel like we were keeping the family somewhat together. Even if we were so far from home.”
A Star is Born
During Triton’s wait for a new liver he even landed a small role in a commercial for MedStar Health where he is seen on camera meeting an “astronaut.”
“Triton just thought that was hilarious, the coolest thing ever,” says Mrs. Fritz.
The Call Comes
On Feb. 24, 2019, Triton’s parents got the call they’d been waiting for—a liver was available and compatible with Triton’s blood type.
The next morning Triton went into surgery. Dr. Fishbein performed the liver transplant and Whipple procedure simultaneously. He removed the whole tumor and both organs intact.
"He recovered insanely fast," says Mrs. Fritz. "He was awake two hours after surgery, he was walking around after just four days. Then we attended the St. Patrick’s Day Party, the Easter Party, and a Super Heroes Party put on by the Hope for Henry Foundation." says Mrs. Fritz.
A couple months later, Triton and his family returned home to Wyoming. Now, once a week, they make a ten-hour roundtrip to Salt Lake City, Utah, for Triton’s maintenance chemotherapy.
Hope for Other Children
Not only has Triton’s success story served as inspiration, but it has also helped raise awareness around the treatment for this rare form of cancer.
“A second patient has already found our program, and is currently awaiting transplant,” says Dr. Fishbein. “As more people hear about this new treatment, I hope it will change the outlook for children across the country with this previously incurable childhood cancer.”
Triton’s New Life
Back home, Mrs. Fritz shares that Triton is back to his energetic and lively self. “He has a new lease on life because of people reaching out to him and to us. We learned that you should never give up on your child.”
In addition to his family, friends, and the team at MedStar Health, Triton has also had a strong support group on social media. Throughout this journey, Triton has gained over 44-thousand followers on his Facebook page, “Triton Tough.”
His followers have tracked his progress and his new adventures thanks to his mom who tries to post as many updates as she can. “We can’t believe how many wonderful people we’ve met and have been directly in touch with us. We’ve met so many people along the way.”
The Fritz family is happy to be moving forward. Triton will be home schooled this year and will return to school in the fall of 2020. “The important thing is that Dr. Fishbein and all the people at [MedStar] Georgetown saved our son’s life when so many other doctors said, ‘no.’ Despite the ups and downs, you can’t help but smile,” says Mrs. Fritz.
- Good Health is a Slam Dunk for eSports Athletes
- Bridging the Gap Between Medicine and Healing
- Physically Impaired Athletes Find Strength and Independence Through Adaptive Sports
- Fresh Produce Provides a Healthy Dose of Hope to Our Community
Want to learn more about MedStar Health?
Discover the ways MedStar Health is providing life-changing healthcare to our patients and the community.