LAGUNA NIGUEL, CA — The Dancing Doctor of Children’s Hospital Orange County wove his way into a local family’s heart this spring after a sudden diagnosis required immediate brain surgery for their son. Tony Adkins, a pediatric neurosurgery physician’s assistant, regularly dances around the hospital and with patients.
He’s earned the nickname the “dancing doctor, ” as viral videos show and millions of followers watch his short videos every day.
Recently, Laguna Niguel mother Erin Rice told Patch that when she videoed Adkins dancing with her son upon news of his release from CHOC’s pediatric neurosurgery ward it was not just a sweet moment. It was a victory dance.
Here is Cooper’s story.
A mother’s fear, realized.
It was late April when Cooper Rice, 8, first experienced double vision. Erin Rice took her son straight to the emergency room, but the diagnosis — a swelling of his optic nerve — rocked their family.
Cooper’s initial diagnosis was idiopathic inter-cranial hypertension or pseudotumor cerebri. “It’s not a tumor, and his brain was otherwise healthy,” she explained to her extended family over social media.
According to the physicians entrusted with Cooper’s care, they would watch and wait and build sandcastles on the Orange County shoreline. Because, when life hands you lemons in Orange County, “you build sandcastles,” she said.
The Rice family has transplanted to Orange County from Virginia. They were an island, and the south county beaches became solace, especially in times of struggle.
Doctors reviewed Cooper’s scans and tests while they waited to learn more about his condition. It was an unexpected call asking them to come in immediately:
“How quickly can you get here.”
Cooper’s initial diagnosis was incorrect. His condition and symptoms were caused by aqueductal stenosis, a narrowing of the aqueduct that creates a fluid back up in his brain. It needed to be addressed, and fast, they told her.
Cooper needed neurosurgery.
“The doctors said it was a pretty standard procedure for neurosurgery,” Rice told us, with a nervous laugh. Nothing about brain surgery seemed standard to her.
Describing the procedure, they would “go in with a camera, snip a hole near the ventricles to create a new draining space, place a catheter near the opening to monitor pressure,” she said. Cooper would need a three- to five-day hospital stay. Then, the catheter would come out, and he would be released, free to resume life as usual.
“We were spiritually and emotionally prepared for this,” she told us.
What she wasn’t prepared for was leaving her son overnight at the hospital for that long. Cooper is a big brother to two siblings, and is “an old soul,” his mother said. Being away from his family would be hard on all of them.
“He’s always been able to look at life without fear,” Erin Rice said. His biggest worry was losing his now-long “California hair.”
When he arrived at school his last day before surgery, Cooper’s teacher let him talk about what was coming with the class.
“Cooper, could you die?” one boy asked.
“Well, the doctor said that’s a risk,” he answered, “but Dr. Olaya said he’s really good at his job, so I’m not worried about it.” He was peaceful about surgery.
Recovery, harder than expected.
At the hospital, the staff showed why CHOC is a remarkable place, for both children who are patients there, and the families that are there for them, Rice said.
“They were incredible,” she said of CHOC. “There wasn’t a single person without a smile, some warmth, a pep in their step. It’s difficult to find people who have both a bedside manner and do their job well. The CHOC doctors, nurses and staff ticked all the boxes.”
Cooper was in the hospital four nights. The first night, pressure in his head was so high they needed to drain it manually.
“It was scary because he’s always had some anxiety,” Erin Rice told us. “To see him panicked like that was a different experience.” The team went to work, and she stood by in awe, praying.
Cooper “hit a wall” the day after his surgery. He became convinced that he would die in the hospital.
“When Cooper asked to talk to a Chaplain, I knew he was really down,” Erin Rice told us. When CHOC’s Chaplain arrived, he praised Cooper on knowing his feelings and accepting that it was all right to feel a little down. Rice remembers the Chaplain saying, “Keep feeling these things and talking about them.”
Doctors, and the PAs like Adkins, reminded Cooper what he needed to do to get out.
Eat whatever you want. Drink whatever you want. Cooper’s goal became getting out of bed on his own. Still, he was down.
His mom reached for an old standby to bring her son back from the edge.
Laughter is the best medicine.
“When life gets stressful, we talk in a British accent,” she laughed, unsure of exactly when they started the tradition. “I knew he’d turned a corner when he used that accent to talk back to me. He said he was glad to be back.”
That day, he started eating. He relaxed. He played video games with his brother, Griffin. He snuggled his sister.
He took part in a Lego competition in the hospital with other kids at CHOC, there for a variety of reasons.
Some would go home, and others would remain long after Cooper left.
Dr. Olaya and Adkins were there every single day, Erin Rice said.
They could have just had the ICU doctor report back to them, she added, but they came in every single time, until it was finally time for Cooper to go home.
“My little buddy and I did a little dance before he discharged home,” Adkins wrote of his dance with Cooper. “He is one amazing little guy. Such an honor to be part of his care team. Thank you so much to his amazing parents. You guys are raising a perfect little man.”
The Dance Off.
Cooper was proud of himself, and he knew he worked to get there.
“What I see is a kid celebrating what he accomplished,” his mother told us. “He would get back to playing baseball. Cooper wants to surf, and he loves to be outdoors.”
And while doctors will continue to monitor him and his recovery, they expect that Cooper will return to all of those things.
He got the “all clear” from doctors on May 9, and will still receive MRIs every three months. CHOC’s “office ladies” gifted him with precisely what an 8-year-old boy needs in the springtime. A Super Soaker.
“Plus, Dr. Olaya only needed to shave part of his hair,” Erin Rice laughed. “He got to keep his California hair.”