- An Encounter with the Art and Science of Medicine
“Let Nothing Upset YouLet Nothing Frighten YouEverything is ChangingOnly God is Changeless”—St. Theresa of Avila
St. Teresa’s prayer is on the front cover of each of four binders dedicated to storing insurance authorizations, studies, references, and reports about our daughter’s brain tumor treatment. They represent our experience, what we learned, the information we were given, and the information we sought out. I kept them in case our daughter ever wanted to understand how my husband and I arrived at a decision for her treatment that was in direct opposition to the strong recommendation of her primary treatment team of physicians.
On December 10, 2003, I received an urgent call from our daughter’s neurologist requesting that we meet with the doctor late that afternoon. For six months prior to that appointment, our daughter had been telling us about odd sensations with breathing, nausea, and balance. Sometimes she would seem extremely distressed for a short period of time or report that her friends told her about doing or saying things that didn’t make sense and that she didn’t remember. We consulted a series of physicians as her symptoms became steadily more intense and more prevalent. Our family practice physician referred us to an allergy specialist and a pulmonologist. There were a number of tests for allergies and lung problems. As the tests and treatments did not help, our daughter became increasingly unwilling to go to doctor’s appointments. My husband and I were confused and deeply concerned about the lack of progress. The next series of referrals included a gastroenterologist and a neurologist. The gastroenterologist suggested our daughter had partial–complex epilepsy, concurred with our plan to see a neurologist, and mentioned she should have an MRI.
I remember the neurologist putting the MRI scans up, pointing to the large dark spot which he called a “large mass” (5 cm), that could be either a cluster of blood vessels or a neoplasm. He said his office had arranged for us to meet a neurosurgeon the following day. We all remember the same thing about that visit—the image of the large dark mass on the scan—and the neurologists flat, brisk tone. We met with the neuro-surgeon the next day. Her team was kind and sympathetic—she was positive, up beat and direct. She did not think this mass was blood vessels. She thought it was a large tumor that needed to be removed right away. Our daughters surgery was scheduled for the following Friday—December 19, 2003. She had turned 15 on November 5.
Four and a half hours after our daughter was wheeled into the operating room, her surgeon told us they had removed 98% of the tumor. She said there was no cure, but there was a good prognosis based on the surgical outcome. Several days later, she called us and said she had more data, and it looked like the resection was closer to 90%. The first pathology report, a “first impression” directly after surgery, described our daughter’s tumor as an astrocytoma, probably high grade. Three weeks after surgery, we met with a panel of doctors—two oncologists and radiologist—who explained that based on the final pathology report, our daughter’s tumor was classified as an ependymoma, grade 2. We were dismayed. First, there had been the change in the estimated success of the resection and now a complete shift in both grade and tumor type.
The team recommended radiation to follow her surgery, which they said was standard treatment. We began to try to inform ourselves about her tumor. Her father, an agronomist, did an extensive search in PubMed to evaluate and sort through the literature on low–grade gliomas and radiation. What he could find was inconclusive and grim. Most reports in the literature suggested at best delayed mortality at five years after radiation. [End Page E7] Meanwhile, our daughter went through a spinal MRI and the preparatory “fitting” of the mask to immobilize her head during radiation.E7
I consulted with a friend who had worked as an EKG tech. She urged...