Last summer, Emily Whitfield and her family headed to Litchfield Beach, South Carolina, for a relaxing week of sun and surf. Their vacation took a scary turn, however, when Emily, then eight, woke up with a swollen and painful right eye. She was running a fever, so her mom, Katie, took her to the local pediatrician.
"The doctor did an orbital CT to see if there was an abscess, but nothing showed up," Katie explained. "She was put on an antibiotic, but the swelling didn't totally go down."
When the family of six returned home to Knoxville, Emily's swollen eye began to turn red. She visited her family pediatrician and was immediately sent to East Tennessee Children's Hospital.
"Emily had never spent the night in the hospital," her mother said. "She was scared to death and cried the whole way there. When we got to Children's Hospital that evening, the nurses were so comforting and so understanding. Nothing was going to make her happy, but they handled it perfectly."
Because Emily could not move her eye normally, she was sent to Allyson Schmitt, M.D., of Knoxville Pediatric Eye Care at Children's Hospital. After Dr. Schmitt did a second orbital CT, it was determined that Emily had an abscess due to a strep infection in her sinuses. Dr. Schmitt explained, "The infection had extended to involve the orbit eye socket. This is a very dangerous condition because it can lead to blindness, intracranial extension or meningitis if untreated."
Though her vision was in jeopardy, Emily's sinuses were the source of the problem. Dr. Schmitt called upon Dr. Mark Ray, pediatric ENT, to address this issue. She said, "Emily had extensive sinus disease, so it doesn't make sense to just address the eye socket. Dr. Ray got involved so he could drain the abscess and eye socket at the same time."
"We only see situations like Emily's a few times a year at Children's Hospital," Dr. Ray explained. "Dr. Schmitt and I worked as a team so that she could evaluate Emily's vision pre- and post-surgery, and I could drain the abscess and perform endoscopic sinus surgery."
Though Katie and Emily were facing multiple doctor visits prior to surgery, they felt comfortable at Children's Hospital. "It's a scary time when there's an unknown cause and there are many risks," Katie said. "When you have your eight-year-old hearing things, it's scary. Throughout the whole process, they (the staff at Children's Hospital) handled it so well with our questions and emotions. It was a whirlwind, but they coordinated the specialists and did a great job of getting us what we needed when we needed it."
Emily went into surgery on Wednesday, August 11, just one week after the swelling appeared in her eye. Dr. Ray drained the abscess and the eye socket after consulting with Dr. Schmitt about the risks. "When Emily came out, it looked like she had been in a boxing match, but all the pressure was gone. She had immediate relief," her mom remembered.
Emily's vision is now back to 20/20, and she has had no complications since the late summer scare. Her eye movements are back to normal, and the only reminder of Emily's ordeal is the small half-inch scar on her eyelid. The outgoing third-grader is back to her regular activities, including basketball and swimming, and back to being her bubbly self. "She's never met a stranger," her mother said. "So we knew this was scary because Emily didn't want people to see her eye."
Though the Whitfields have four children, this was their first inpatient experience at Children's Hospital. The situation was frightening, but the family felt reassured by the hospital staff. Katie explained, "They never seemed stressed. Instead, it was more like, ‘This is what we do every day.' They made us feel like we were the most important thing at that time. It is such a blessing as a parent to have that right in my backyard."
Favorite color: Blue
Favorite movie: Matilda
Favorite school subject: Math & writing
Hero: My sister Mary Kate
What I do for fun: Dance, sing, cheer, basketball, swimming, play with my friends & cousins
What I want to be when I grow up: a teacher, dancer, basketball player or pediatrician