Sophie Fellows’s left arm shook as she drew the bow across her violin, but when the music therapist asked if she was too tired, the little girl shook her head, tucked her chin, and focused her eye on the strings.
The fingers she still cannot steady fluttered at the violin’s neck and she began to play the first trembling notes of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” Then stopped. “What’s the tune of this one again?” she asked in a small voice.
It is less than a month since doctors removed a tumor the size of a plum from the base of Sophie’s brain. The mass turned out to be benign, and her parents, Chad and Aimee, call it a miracle.
Sophie, 9, spent weeks in the intensive care unit in Boston Children’s Hospital, where her left lung collapsed and she had to use a breathing tube for 11 days. Her left side is weak and she wears an eye patch to correct double vision. But on Thursday afternoon, in a sunny room in Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, overlooking Boston Harbor, she refused to give up on the song.
“Your arm’s getting a little shaky, is it too tired?” asked the music therapist.
Sophie didn’t even look up when the therapist asked if she was too fatigued to continue. “No,” she said and played it to the end.
It was music that buoyed her spirits right before her first surgery on Dec. 12, when her music class traveled from Vermont, where Sophie lives in Colchester, to Boston Children’s Hospital to join her in a Christmas concert the night before the 7½-hour operation.
Sophie had started getting headaches in November, and by the first week in December, she was throwing up, said her mother. When doctors showed Sophie’s parents her MRI, they could see a mass in her cerebellum.
“It was like, ‘How could that be there when she seems so normal on the outside?’ ” said Aimee Fellows. They prayed and prepared for anything.
Three days after the first surgery, Sophie had another, her parents said, to ensure that all of the tumor was removed.
The last song Sophie’s classmates played during the Christmas concert was Pachelbel’s “Canon.” Her father said that after each surgery, as he walked from the hospital, he heard the song playing in a nearby cafe.
“It really felt to me that was a divine communication, saying, ‘I’m here, she’s fine, she’s gonna be OK,’ ” Chad Fellows said.
But recovery was not easy. Sophie managed a thumbs up just hours after waking from her second surgery, but then she stopped breathing. Doctors quickly inserted a breathing tube into her throat, where it stayed almost continuously until the day after Christmas. She could not speak and could not coordinate her eyes and finger well enough to point to simple phrases on a board, so she was left with hand signals: one finger for yes, two for no, thumbs up, and the “OK” symbol, index finger touched to thumb.
But she could still show her sense of humor. One day, her sisters Lucy, 11, and Claire, 16, walked into her hospital room shouting “Rock on!” and Sophie, her eyes closed, raised her index, thumb, and pinkie finger in a symbol for rock ’n’ roll.
The breathing tube came out on Dec. 26, the same day that doctors told Sophie’s parents the tumor was benign.
Prayer has helped carry the family through the ordeal. The family, which also includes a 19-year-old son, Judd, belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and after news articles ran about Sophie’s Christmas concert, people from across the country and from all faiths began sending cards promising to pray for her.
Divine intervention and the skill of the surgeon saved her life, her father says.
Sophie says she was never scared. “No,” she said Thursday, curled into the wheelchair that Lucy pushes around. “I don’t think so.”
Lucy helps her little sister with her eye patch, tenderly reaching out every so often to adjust the band at the back of her head. The two wear matching bracelets they made together: “Big sis” and “Little sis.” They spent days creating a board game, complete with a Tornado Island and a Winter Wonderland, and a thick stack of cards spiriting players “Up up, up, and away!” or telling them to move ahead in a car that outpaced the tornadoes.
“I have a hard time not overbearingly hugging and kissing them,” said Chad Fellows, as he watched them lean into each other to whisper during Sophie’s group therapy.
The family has been told they can expect to have Sophie home toward the end of the month. She can’t wait to get back to school. On Thursday, she worked hard to strengthen her left side by playing her violin and worked on her voice, which is still hoarse from the breathing tube, by singing as loud as she could.
She took a deep breath.
“I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire, ’cause I am a champion,” she sang, her voice rising with the lyrics to a Katy Perry song. “And you’re gonna hear me roar.”