Moments before going into her brain surgery, Ana held hands and prayed with her husband of 18 years. They cried together and tried to find the words to say goodbye.
Ana, a teacher and mother of two, frequently fainted and temporarily lost feeling in her legs and feet since childhood. But as she got older, the symptoms worsened: blurry vision, bowel problems and intense pressure in the back of her head.
She went though a series of doctors before an MRI revealed she suffered from type one Arnold-Chiari malformation, a structural defect in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance. In this condition, the cerebellum pushes through a large opening in the base of the skull and into the spinal canal.
When Dr. Allen Kantrowitz, chief of neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, saw the MRI results, he told her she needed to get surgery as soon as possible. Delaying the surgery could increase the chances that her cerebellum would block the circulation of spinal fluid to her brain, which could lead to her death.
“There is no such thing as a little bit of brain surgery, even the smallest thing can change a person’s life,” Kantrowitz said. “But we have modern techniques available. Our expectation of having a serious, life-changing problem is less than 1 percent.”
Ana, 42, went to four other doctors hoping they would tell her she did not need an operation. But her symptoms got so bad she realized it would be the best solution. She prepared a will, scheduled the surgery and went to her hairstylist, who perfectly shaved the back of her head.
Her surgery lasted 10 hours.
“Waking up I had a spiritual experience, I woke up feeling God’s presence and knowing that I was going to be OK,” Ana said. “The healing came in a physical way but more than that it has changed my perspective of life. The things that used to matter before don’t seem to matter anymore. I have made it my goal to be more charitable and loving.”
Chris Marshall, a hotel executive and consultant, also changed his perspective after going through brain surgery.
He was born with an arachnoid cyst, a cerebrospinal fluid-filled sac in his brain. It wasn’t discovered until he had an MRI at age 50.
In his case, it took about 18 months after his MRI to make the decision to operate. His cyst was the size of a grapefruit.
When a person suffers from a condition that requires brain surgery, doctors examine the patient individually, deciding whether to operate or to look at other possibilities.
“It’s hard to make someone better and easy to make them worse,” said Marshall’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Linda Sternau, of Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. She considers herself a conservative doctor who likes to study the case as much as possible before operating. “When the patient’s lifestyle becomes significantly limited and they are losing function, I operate.”
Marshall’s symptoms began with occasional seizures in the hands and headaches when traveling by airplane. But as time passed, the headaches worsened, he was getting extremely tired and had to sleep for hours a time.
But Marshall’s cyst was in the part of the brain that controls fear, making him fearless throughout the process. Just four months later he was back at work and hoping to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.