How My Brain Tumor Made Me a Better Doctor
I am a healthy, active person, but this past winter, I began to experience abnormal headaches. I have migraines about once a year and can manage them naturally, but over the course of six months, I experienced 15 migraines. As a neurologist, I knew that these were atypical headaches. Although I was feeling fine and maintained my usual level of activity, the headaches progressed in severity and frequency until I could no longer ignore my body’s message.
After a few frustrating mishaps in the medical world that delayed a useful diagnostic workup, a doctor finally ordered my brain MRI. After the study, I was instructed to head to the ER without further information despite repeatedly asking for answers. In the ER, no one knew why I was there, but they placed me in an exam room where I waited for 30 minutes.
Finally, an ER physician came in and opened his laptop displaying my MRI results. As a neurologist I review scans every day, and I immediately noticed the immense swelling. My first thought? It’s a terminal diagnosis. Fortunately, as my husband and I scrolled through the images of the scan, it revealed a very large and circumscribed tumor arising from the lining of the brain that was pushing down on my left hemisphere. This created a swelling and mass effect, which means my brain was being pulled to the right side. It was a wonder to all in the room that I had not experienced any seizures or neurologic deficits. But my life changed in that moment.
Two days later, I was admitted for a cerebral angiogram, a test that injects dye into the vessels of my brain so the tumor can be identified. The problem vessel was the middle meningeal artery, which had to be embolized to minimize the bleeding during neurosurgery planned for the next day. The five-hour-long surgery required a complete craniotomy, which places a cut over the top of the head from ear to ear. Since the tumor had collapsed the front portion of my sagittal sinus, one of the sinuses in the brain that collects and drains blood and attached to my left frontal lobe, it required extra care to remove. Fortunately, the surgery was deemed a gross total resection and a success.
Pathology testing revealed an overall benign pattern, but chromosomal testing revealed risk factors for recurrence, which classified my tumor as an atypical meningioma, versus a typical one. Since this brings a slightly higher chance of recurrence, I will be scanned every six months for the next three years.
I was in the hospital for four days, and it was no walk in the park! During that time, I encountered poor communication, inaccurate reports, erroneous knowledge, and overall lack of cohesive care. While some hospital personnel were wonderful and competent, there were many mistakes along my journey. Fortunately, I was able to identify and correct these mistakes because I am a physician, but I started to worry about how non-physicians navigate the healthcare system.
In retrospect, I am certain this experience makes me a better physician, and I am determined to advocate for all of my patients so that others can worry less about their care and concentrate more on their health.
My experience was terrifying and life changing. I was scared I would not live to see my daughter grow up. I faced my own mortality in a way that I had not before. I have healed remarkably well, which I attribute to my healthy lifestyle. I have resumed my life and my passion for helping people. Besides my family, helping my patients is what brings me true joy, and life is too short to not find true joy.