Christine Zinke, currently a social worker at the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden, was visiting family in Germany when she first noticed a strange sensation in her head. She felt like she had a tight headband on all the time. At first, her primary care doctor suggested it could be a sinus infection, but when treatment and time didn't help, she saw a neurologist.
"I knew something was seriously wrong with me," Christine says.
At first she was misdiagnosed with migraines, but as a kidney donor, she did not want to take any unnecessary medication. Meanwhile, she would occasionally feel dizziness and like she couldn't see out of one eye for a few seconds at a time. Eventually, the doctor ordered a brain MRI that revealed a meningioma, a type of brain tumor that is usually benign. She met with a neurosurgeon who bluntly rushed through a description of how the tumor was wrapped around her carotid artery and optic nerve, so there was a possibility of blindness or stroke. After sharing a tearful moment with her husband, they embraced. They looked at each other and knew this was not the right doctor for her surgery.
Frustrated and upset with the experience, she hoped to seek a second opinion. Her husband's pharmaceutical colleagues recommended the surgical team in the Department of Neurosurgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. She got an appointment with Brian Nahed, MD, MSc who specializes in brain tumors.
"Brain tumors, while a relatively rare disorder, are commonly seen at Mass General, as a high referral center," says Dr. Nahed.
Coming to Mass General
"In general, meningiomas are thought to be benign tumors," says Dr. Nahed. "The vast majority of them are followed with MRIs, often not needing surgery unless they grow, change on imaging, or if they cause symptoms. When surgery is recommended, patients often spend a few days in the hospital before being discharged home where they often do quite well."
During the initial appointment, Dr. Nahed spent an hour going through the MRI films, showing and explaining everything to Christine and her husband.
"It was a delicate surgery because the tumor was near her carotid artery and her optic nerve," Dr. Nahed says.
For Christine, this visit was vastly different from her previous one. "He was so calm about it, and it was clear there was an urgency, but he made me feel like it was going to be okay. His calm demeanor, humble confidence, caring and the connection I felt, solidified it for me. He was the exact doctor I needed to walk me through this terrifying experience and he figuratively held my hand the entire time."
While she had previously felt anxiety about her diagnosis, now she felt calm.
After the initial appointment, Dr. Nahed called her to discuss how he would be as aggressive as possible in going after the tumor while also being conservative due to the risk of blindness and stroke.
Surgery and Recovery
After experiencing anxiety about her possible prognosis, Christine felt surprisingly calm on the day of the surgery.
"I went in there knowing Dr. Nahed was going to take care of me the best way that he could. And I had given into the reality that I didn't have any control at that point," she says.
The surgery was about 10 hours.
"We were able to remove the entire meningioma," Dr. Nahed says. "Everything went smoothly and she did very well."
When she woke up, she experienced some mild complications with her vision not tracking correctly. Luckily, Dr. Nahed's removal of the tumor helped Christine preserve her vision. He explained that her tumor had stretched her optic nerve, putting her vision at great risk and potentially risking permanent blindness if this was not operated on. By removing the tumor, the pressure on the nerve was relieved. She was discharged from the hospital after a few days.
As she recovered, she attended a support group for patients with brain tumors and was surprised to see that most patients had physical evidence of their surgeries.
"When I mentioned it to Dr. Nahed, he told me that the muscle had to be stretched back over my skull after the procedure to make me appear like myself, which takes time," Christine says. "Not every surgeon takes that time. It was important to him that I look as normal as possible following the surgery. Other than my scar that my hair covers, it is not apparent to anyone that I had brain surgery."
She still sees Dr. Nahed for annual checkups. Three years after her brain surgery, Christine was diagnosed with lymphoma. Dr. Nahed referred her to an oncologist at the Mass General Cancer Center.
"I put all my faith in Dr. Nahed and I trust him completely," Christine says. She adds, "He saved my life and I am forever grateful that I have my eyesight, I'm alive and I didn't have a stroke."
Stephen E. and Catherine Pappas Center
The Stephen E. and Catherine Pappas Center for Neuro-Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital offers the most advanced care for patients with brain tumors and nervous system tumors