South Dakota family drives all the way to Houston for son's brain tumor surgery

A family from South Dakota has been traveling all the way to Houston for life-changing surgery for their little boy. 

Daniel and Shalena Zeller sure are thankful for the Texas Medical Center and say it will always hold a warm place in their hearts! 

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Their son, Daksten, was only four years old last October when his first symptoms appeared. 

"It just happened so sporadically, anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds he would get what he said were blurry eyes. And then it progressed a little bit like we noticed he'd look in one direction or it got to the point to where he was like my tummy hurts," explains Shalena. 

They were anxious for answers. 

"At the EEG, we found out that there was abnormal activity in the brain," she goes on to say. 


Seizures were causing Daksten's odd episodes of blurry vision. 

"They also looked at his birthmarks, which sounds crazy, but they told us that your skin and your brain can develop at the same time in the womb and by certain birthmarks that they can identify, they could get a sense that there could have been some abnormal growth in the brain at the same time," states Daniel. "My son had one birthmark that we didn't even notice until he was a few years old on his lower leg, and they looked at it, and they said oddly enough, this is the type of birthmark that we're looking for."

Doctors in South Dakota suspected Daksten had a benign brain tumor that was causing him to experience those seizures and suggested they take a "wait and watch" approach for years. That's when the Zellers got a second opinion from a specialist at Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston. 

"It's an honor for somebody to come from so far away. These folks live in South Dakota. I felt very bad. When I spoke to Daksten’s parents, they had a lot going on. The mom was about to have her third baby, when her son Daksten started having these daily seizures. I was puzzled by her recommendation of a neurosurgeon to do nothing in a timely fashion," says UTHealth Pediatric Neurosurgeon Dr. David Sandberg with Children's Memorial Hermann. 


He felt immediate action would be a safer path for Daksten. 

"He was having up to four seizures per day. He had an obvious cause of the seizures, which was a brain tumor. It wasn't the easiest brain tumor. There are some brain tumors that are more challenging than others. This was on the more challenging side, but nothing too out of the ordinary," states Dr. Sandberg.

Dr. Sandberg also believed Daksten's tumor was benign but suggested removal versus waiting years, and Zeller's agreed with his plan of action.

"He expressed 100% confidence at being able to get to it, remove it, and potentially stop these episodes my son was having. We knew there was a risk that they could keep happening. There was a risk of some vision loss on his left side," explains Daksten's loving parents. 

The Zellers couldn't bear watching their son go through seizures for years, so they opted for surgery. They had to leave their newborn baby behind with family members in South Dakota and head to Houston five days after she was born, but when they arrived, Daksten tested positive for COVID-19, so they had to drive all the way back home. 

Several weeks later, they packed up their family of five this time and drove back to Texas for surgery. It was a huge success and as suspected, his tumor was non-malignant. 

"Dr. Sandberg said we'd love to see a 90% reduction in seizures. Never by our wildest imagination did we assume that they're going to be totally gone, and we credit that to Dr. Sandberg," says a smiling Daniel. 


"He said it was a very difficult location of the tumor. He had to take out part of his skull, like a square of his skull to even get to it, but it's incredible, he's like your normal 5-year-old boy," boasts proud mom Shalena. 

Daksten's wound has healed well, and he is now symptom-free. Daksten will continue to get follow-up MRIs to make sure he remains healthy. His parents relied on prayers to get them through their tough times.

For more information on the Children's Neuroscience Center, click here.