Dawn Evans’ Patient Story
In 1973, when I was seven years old, I had a series of grand mal seizures. My parents took me to a handful of neurologists to find out why. Because the year 1973 predates computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology, I was given an electroencephalogram (EEG.) I remember the gooey substance applied in dots all over my head to attach the electrodes. I was also given an EMI scan (similar to a CT). I laid on a table and was automatically conveyed into a tube; I had to lay very still while a large rectangular machine rocked noisily back and forth over me. The scans revealed a pinhead-sized dot on my brain below the third ventricle, which was proclaimed at the time to be nothing more than the equivalent of a “birthmark” on my brain and nothing to worry about. My seizures were deemed to be related to developmental spurts.
Flash forward to the summer of 1980, the summer before my freshman year of high school. I was spending the night with one of my best friends. I woke in the middle of the night with an agonizingly splitting headache. Many parents might have written my headache off as a normal part of adolescence. However, because of my history, they decided to take me for follow-up brain scans. A week or so later, I was off to the Talented and Gifted (TAG) week-long summer enrichment program at the University of Oregon (UO). Little did I know that while I was at UO, my parents were scrambling to meet with doctors and do research (mind you, this was pre-Internet, so research was done at the library scouring microfiche). When I returned, my parents told me that we were traveling from Oregon to San Francisco. to meet with a renowned neurosurgeon, Charles B. Wilson, MD, FAANS(L). It was believed that I had a relatively rare benign brain tumor called a colloid cyst. I approached this news with a stoic and matter-of-fact mentality that “all would be fine.”
We flew to San Francisco, and I will never forget my first meeting with Dr. Wilson. He is a relatively small man who fills a room with calm intensity. I sat across the desk from him and he confirmed that, like the neurosurgeon in Oregon, I had a colloid cyst and that it should be removed as soon as possible. He also explained that, unlike the Oregon neurosurgeon, he would enter my brain through the top of my head rather than from the side. This would later prove to be a lifesaving difference. I remember telling my parents that I had a very strong intuitive sense that Dr. Wilson must perform my surgery.
My brain surgery took place on Aug. 19, 1980, (my father’s birthday for luck). I remember that I was not afraid and had a profound sense that everything would be okay. I was mainly worried about my head being shaved and starting high school with a bald head. The surgery went well other than the fact that my cyst was bigger and more precariously placed in my brain than had previously been believed. In fact, it was situated in a manner that if the Oregon surgeon had performed the surgery with the side-entry method, I would either not have survived or would have been vegetative. My conviction that everything would be fine remained, and I only had to stay in the hospital for two weeks rather than a month.
I distinctly remember the first walk I took with my mom and sister along the country road on which we lived. I had the profound realization that I was noticing everything more distinctly, as though my senses were amplified. I returned to the house and wrote a poem in honor of Dr. Wilson:
Once in awhile
We should stop
And listen…and hear
The many sounds
And once in awhile
Not only look
A stormy sky
Once in awhile
Touch and smell
A new bud
About to burst
As a new life
After the once in awhile
Realize the gift
Given within these gifts
Dr. Wilson told my parents that he was unsure of what the future would bring for me as I was, at the time, the youngest person to be operated on for this kind of tumor due to its frequently asymptomatic nature (usually discovered post-mortem). He also told them that because I was on the precipice of puberty, the location of the tumor might affect my development, and he explained that I may not graduate from high school let alone college.
Despite the fact that I started my freshman year about two months late, I managed to graduate from high school with a 3.87 GPA and honors. I also finished my undergraduate degree in French with the same GPA and graduated summa cum laude. I was accepted into an extremely competitive graduate program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in French translation and interpretation, where I completed one year of the program.
Now, 42 years later, I have two beautiful children; a son and a daughter, who are 21 and 19 years old, both attending college. I have worked for the past 25 years as a legal assistant, first in litigation and for the past 10 years, in public finance. I have lived with a man who I love dearly for the past 15 years and am surrounded by loving family and friends. My health is generally very good, other than some ongoing intestinal issues. The only remaining side effect of my brain tumor has been some short-term memory difficulties for which, over the years, I developed coping mechanisms.
Overall, I feel extremely fortunate and appreciative to have learned at a very young age to not dwell on the small stuff and to truly appreciate what is really important in life.