When Jessica Fritz noticed an unusual yellowing tint to 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.
“I demanded blood work to get to the bottom of it,” says Fritz. “I just knew something wasn’t right.”
Testing showed that Triton’s jaundiced appearance was due to a cancerous liver tumor called 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 turning his skin 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 Fritz. “We were devastated.”
Desperate Search for a Treatment
Fritz and her husband Daniel Fritz began to search for someone who would treat Triton’s 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 Fritz. “He needed surgery, but they didn’t have the expertise to handle such a surgery. We knew the risks of not doing anything were that our son would lose his life.”
That’s when one of her physicians recommended they travel to Washington, D.C., to the MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute to see its executive director, Thomas Fishbein, MD.
“We saw Dr. Fishbein who told us, ‘of course there is something we can do for your son,’” says Fritz.
“Triton had a lethal tumor for which there really is no cure,” says 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. This had never been done before for such a rare tumor, but it was his only option.”
This second part of the procedure, called a Whipple is an 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.
Traveling to MedStar Georgetown, Waiting for a New Liver
On November 9, 2018 Jessica Fritz, her husband and her younger son left their two other children with grandparents, traveled several hundred miles and checked Triton into MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
“Our strategy was to take care of Triton and manage his medical needs, while we listed him for a liver transplant,” says Fishbein.
Triton spent many months between MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House of Washington, D.C., where his mother and father traded days watching Triton at the hospital.
Caring for the Whole Family
The timing of Triton’s hospitalization meant that the family would be separated over hundreds of miles during the holiday season.
“That’s where Georgetown’s amazing Child Life program kicked in,” recalls Fritz. “Triton and his younger brother attended a Grinch cupcake decorating party in early December, followed by a big party welcoming Santa right before Christmas 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.”
During Triton’s wait for a new liver he even landed a small role in the new commercial for MedStar Health where he is seen on camera meeting an “astronaut.”
“Triton just thought that was hilarious, the coolest thing ever,” says Fritz.
The Call Comes
Then on February 24, 2019, Triton’s parents got the call. A liver was available. And it was compatible with Triton’s blood type.
The next morning, Dr. Fishbein performed the liver transplant and Whipple procedure simultaneously, removing the whole tumor and both organs intact. To add to the complexity, the liver Triton became available for was a small portion split from an adult liver, from which the other side was also transplanted into another adult patient.
“He recovered insanely fast,” says 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.”
Then in early April, Triton and his family returned home to Wyoming. Now, once a week, they make a five-hour trip each way to Salt Lake City, Utah for Triton’s maintenance chemo therapy.
Hope for Other Children
“With Triton’s success, a second patient has already found our program, and is currently awaiting transplant,” says 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
“Triton is energetic and lively now. 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.”
Triton’s 43-thousand followers on his Facebook page, “Triton Tough,” 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.”
Because Triton’s siblings missed a lot of school, all of them will repeat the past year at a new school in Wyoming this fall. Triton will get home schooling this year, then be off to school in the fall of 2020.
“He won’t be able to do all the activities he used to like wrestling and we’re a little nervous about sending him back to school but we’ll be ready. The important thing is that Dr. Fishbein and all the people at Georgetown saved our son’s life when so many other doctors said, ‘no.’ Despite the ups and downs, you can’t help but smile.”