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Child brain tumor survivor to meet with Bush

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A 9-year-old Douglaston girl who underwent an operation at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park three years ago to remove a plum-sized brain tumor has been chosen to meet President Bush in Washington, D.C. and Mickey Mouse in Disney World as the state's Children's Miracle Network Champion.

Melina Kostaskis was nominated by Schneider Children's Hospital to act as an ambassador for the millions of children who have been helped by the Children's Miracle Network, a non-profit organization that raises money for 170 children's hospitals throughout the United States and Canada, because of her positive attitude and bravery when faced with serious medical challenges.

She joined 49 other CMN Champions, ranging in age from infants to 18, to represent each of the 50 states in Washington, D.C. Monday. They were scheduled to meet the president and first lady in the White House and to be addressed by Miss America on Tuesday.

After being nominated by hospitals, CMN Champions are chosen by members of the Independent Order of Foresters, a financial services organization that sponsors many children's organizations.

"Melina was chosen to represent the state because she's a great representation of overcoming her challenges with a great attitude that's inspirational," said Lynn Flannery, a representative for Foresters, which has donated more than $11 million to CMN since 1990.

Melina was diagnosed with a brain tumor in January 2000 after she suffered through persistent headaches, nausea and vomiting for over five weeks. The key to her diagnosis came when she complained about deficiencies in her vision, which is a symptom of neurological problems.

During a three-hour operation, pediatric neurosurgeon Alan Rosenthal removed a tumor from the back of Melina's head, near the neck, which had slowly grown so large that it had displaced her brain by 2 1/2 inches and was obstructing the flow of her cerebral-spinal fluid.

"If untreated, she would've become blind and died because her brain would have crushed itself against its surroundings," said Rosenthal.

After her surgery, Melina did not recover fully until about a year later, said Melina's mother, Christina Kostaskis.

"Her appetite was very bad. She lost a lot of weight," said Kostaskis. "And her balance was off. She had to do physical therapy for her balance."

Melina stayed home from school from January to June 2000. During that time, Kostaskis hired a teacher to home-school her. Classmates from school sent Melina get-well cards and called her occasionally, said Kostaskis.

Eleven Canadian CMN Champions flew to Ottawa, Ontario Monday to meet Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

After visiting their capital cities, all CMN Champions took a charter flight to Orlando, Fla. were scheduled Wednesday to visit Walt Disney World. From Wednesday to Sunday, champions were expected to attend a large concert, to meet various celebrities, including Kool and the Gang, Bruce Hornsby, Christopher Reeves and Larry King, and to be honored at a large banquet.

"The focus of the trip is to acknowledge achievements and victories and the medical challenges they've been able to overcome," said William Tawpash, an executive director for CMN. "Melina will be able to interact with children like her across the country."

Three years after her operation, Melina is in school again, and enjoys dancing, shopping and playing with her friends in her spare time.

"I take ballet lessons and I shop for clothes and CDs," she said.

The chances of a tumor recurring are very small, said Rosenthal, especially with new technology that allows doctors to diagnose and follow tumors very closely. Melina sees a neurologist every six months for check-ups.

"Melina is a true inspiration and a champion to us all," said Tawpash.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by email at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

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