Neurosurgeon Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen and his former patient Nina Jubran share two important skills: As a surgeon and an artist, they both have great attention to detail and hands that are used to doing very delicate work. They also have another profound connection: Ellenbogen saved Nina’s life 12 years ago today when she came in for neurosurgery to remove a dangerous brain tumor.
Nina, 22, is an artist and a student at the University of Washington studying sociology. In her spare time, she makes and sells delicate clay figurines like miniature scenes of penguins fishing, ornate bouquets and families of teddy bears. To thank Ellenbogen for saving her life, Nina made him clay figurines 12 years ago of a teddy bear and puppies that still sit on his desk.
Recently, Nina was at Seattle Children’s selling her figurines to raise money for the hospital when a chance encounter reunited her with the doctor who performed her life-saving operation. Ellenbogen was having a busy day with surgeries, and he went out for a quick cup of coffee before heading into his next operation.
“When I saw Nina, my heart skipped a beat,” Ellenbogen said. “It made my day to run into a former patient. I am so proud that she is out there being successful and doing what she loves. That is what drives me as a doctor.”
For Nina, seeing the doctor who saved her life was an equally exciting surprise.
“It meant a lot to me and my family to see Dr. Ellenbogen again,” she said. “He stopped to catch up with us, and it was a moment I won’t forget.”
From the classroom to the operating room
When Nina was 10, she started having severe headaches.
“My parents scheduled me to see a specialist, but the pain and dizziness got worse, and I started to throw up,” Nina said. “My parents knew something was wrong, so they took me from school and brought me to the Seattle Children’s emergency room.”
Nina started having trouble speaking while she was in the emergency room. A CT scan showed a concerning lesion in her brain, and an MRI confirmed the worst: Nina had a brain tumor.
“Nina had a hypothalamic tumor in a sensitive and deep part of her brain,” Ellenbogen said. “The hypothalamus is critical to basic survival — it controls body temperature, hormones and emotions. At four centimeters, this was a significant tumor and a challenging case.”
Within one week of her emergency room visit, Nina was in the operating room for surgery with Ellenbogen. In the brief time between diagnosis and surgery, Nina and her family had a lot of questions and concerns. Ellenbogen answered their questions and did his best to calm their anxiety.
“Dr. Ellenbogen didn’t just take care of Nina, he took care of all of us,” said Clair Jubran, Nina’s mom. “Before surgery, Dr. Ellenbogen took her dad and me to his office and said he would take good care of Nina. Dr. Ellenbogen and the staff at Seattle Children’s were like angels who took care of Nina, and they are angels to all the children who come here for treatment.”
Ellenbogen knew the surgery would be Nina’s best shot at beating the tumor, and a lot was riding on this procedure.
“This was not an ordinary surgery, but this is not an ordinary hospital and I have a first-rate team who can do amazing work,” he said.
When the surgery was done, Ellenbogen came out with news for the family: They managed to remove most of the tumor.
“Not only did she do great after the tumor removal, but she has excelled,” he said. “She’s smart and she didn’t lose a bit of that brightness that makes her special.”
Bringing creative joy to the hospital as an adult
The child that Ellenbogen performed surgery on is now a young woman graduating from college who uses her artistic mind to give back to the hospital. Nina’s next art sales at the hospital will be September 7-8 and November 3-4. In addition to selling her art at the hospital, Nina volunteers with the hospital’s art cart, which brings arts and craft supplies to children’s rooms.
“I bring pipe cleaners, paper, fuzzy ornaments and clay, and we just have fun and make whatever the kids want,” she said. “I love coming back to the hospital as an artist and volunteer. When I come here, I see some of the same staff I saw 12 years ago when I was a patient. It shows how much dedication there is to this hospital.”
Nina’s hope after graduating from college is to work in the medical field. She is interested in becoming a child life specialist at Seattle Children’s and helping families and patients navigate their experiences here.
“Other hospitals don’t have quite the same welcoming feel for children,” Nina said. “I love that this hospital was designed specifically for kids, and the whole environment makes you feel that. After being a patient, it feels good to come to the hospital and give back.”