The 2020 CHEO BBQ Honorary Family

Elissa was born on Canada Day – July 1, 2004 – but there wasn’t much time for celebrations around her birth.

When Elissa’s mom, Sonia, was pregnant, doctors discovered an abnormality during a routine ultrasound in her third trimester. Significant portions of the fetus’ brain could not be seen on imaging, causing concern for the doctors at the Civic Hospital. A large, dark shadow was seen over the brain and there were concerns that the fetus was missing major structures that were key to development.

The Mendes family was told that no action could be taken until the baby was born. Upon birth, doctors immediately ran a battery of tests – including an MRI – to get a better handle on the situation.

Dr. Michael Vassilyadi looked at the images and concluded that Elissa had a large arachnoid cyst that was compressing her brain. It was his belief that if he could install a shunt inside Elissa’s body, the cyst would decompress and the brain would be able to grow in a normal way. At nine days old, Elissa underwent brain surgery at CHEO that was performed by Dr. Vassilyadi. The surgery was a high-risk procedure, as there were concerns that Elissa could suffer a significant amount of blood loss that could lead to complications – or even a fatality. The shunt was successfully installed, but within seven months she was back for another procedure after the initial device malfunctioned. Her second shunt lasted for more than a decade and during that time Elissa thrived as a growing toddler and young child. She excelled at school and was able to participate in sports such as swimming and gymnastics. During those years, Elissa would constantly be back at CHEO for MRIs and routine follow-ups. Everything was going on track until early January 2017, when Dr. Vassilyadi discovered Elissa’s shunt tubing was actually broken during a routine x-ray. As a result, Elissa was forced to undergo another shunt revision – this time at the age of 12. The fallout from this procedure was quite a bit worse, as it caused Elissa to have chronic headaches for almost 18 months – which often culminated with episodes of excruciating pain and vomiting.

She was closely followed by CHEO’s Neurosurgery and Neurology Department during this time, going for countless visits and MRIs. The good news is that by September of 2018, a lot of Elissa’s symptoms had subsided – allowing her to once again participate in a full and active lifestyle. Now in Grade 9, Elissa was recently able to participate in a Relay For Life Cancer Fundraiser at her high school – a 12-hour walk-a-thon that required her to constantly be on the move. Elissa was also able to volunteer each Wednesday night during the school year at a Power Play Sports Camp – a program designed to teach elementary school children the basics of various sports.

Elissa also enthusiastically volunteers at Ronald McDonald House on the campus at CHEO – helping make breakfast for families at the home on a regular basis!