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Greensburg teen 'feels good' after surgery

| Thursday, July 19, 2012, 8:55 p.m.
Jim Fennell Jr. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

Jim Fennell of Greensburg will return to California next month after successfully undergoing 11 hours of surgery in June to remove a tumor from his right ear, his mother said.

“He's progressing every day,” said Tonia Fennell. “And the prayers, it's amazing. Please keep praying, because we have awhile to go.”

Surgeons at the House Clinic in Los Angeles removed a tumor from the teen's right ear last month, Tonia Fennell said. As part of the procedure, doctors removed his auditory nerve.

“He did lose his hearing, but we knew that would happen,” his mother said. “We had to take his hearing to save his life. You can barely see the scar.”

Jim, 17, a student at Greensburg Salem Senior High School, suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes tumors to form on cranial and spinal nerves.

In late August, Jim and his mother will return to Los Angeles for an auditory brain stem implant that will give him “the sensation of hearing,” Tonia Fennell said.

“They'll turn it on then. It will work right away. You have to retrain the brain to hear things,” she said.

He then must return approximately every two to three months, for up to a year, for adjustments to the device.

“Right now, he's very weak,” Tonia Fennell said.

Physical and speech therapy will be part of his regular schedule.

Jim became aware of his condition after he suffered a broken leg in 2007 after being struck by a truck in Salem. A few days after his release from Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, where doctors inserted pins into his leg, he suffered a stroke that left him unable to walk.

“I came home from work one day, and I was trying to teach him to walk with crutches,” Tonia Fennell remembered. “He said, ‘Mom, You don't understand. I can't walk.' He had all the classic signs of a stroke.”

During one stay at Children's after the stroke, doctors found tumors in Jim's brain stem and spinal cord. They believe the tumors caused the stroke, Tonia Fennell said. Doctors told Jim to avoid being struck, ending his dreams of playing football.

Since then, surgeons have removed tumors from his spine. Jim still has more than 15 tumors, his mother said. In addition, he has undergone cancer surgery.

Workers at the Olive Garden Italian Restaurant on Route 30 in Hempfield, where Jim works part time, hosted a fundraising dinner for him in April at Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department's Hose Company No. 1. Other businesses donated food.

About $8,000 has been raised through the dinner, the restaurant and individual donations to help the family with travel, medical and other expenses, Tonia Fennell said. “It was amazing, the support,” she said.

Jim said he understands that he will need time before he gets the sensation of hearing at the level he wants through the implant.

“I feel good. There's a lot of rehabilitation,” he said.

He doesn't expect to be able to begin his senior year at Greensburg Salem High School until a few months after the start of school in August. It's in Jim's nature to accept what life gives him, his mother said.

Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or

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