Barbara Giaquinto was feeling off-balance, so she went to her primary care doctor. Suspecting head congestion was causing her dizziness, the doctor prescribed cold medicine. But Barbara didn’t feel any better.
Later that winter, Barbara remembers, “I was out and saw my aunt about 20 feet away, but I had trouble walking over to her. I was staggering and my eyesight started to get distorted — it was all I could do to stay upright. I was scared driving home later and remember praying the whole way just to let me get home safe.”
Barbara knew her problem had to be fixed quickly and suspected something worse than a cold. An MRI scan uncovered the cause of Barbara’s balance and vision issues: an acoustic neuroma behind her left ear. Acoustic neuromas, also known as vestibular schwannomas, are benign (non-cancerous) tumors near the brainstem.
Barbara’s neurologist didn’t recommend immediate treatment for the acoustic neuroma since it wasn’t causing major complications and surgery can be risky. She continued working at her secretarial job.
About a year later, while her doctors monitored her condition, Barbara began hearing ringing in her ears (tinnitus) and noticed that voices were sounding muffled. Work tasks like answering the phone became difficult and uncomfortable.
That’s when Barbara was referred to UPMC. She met with otolaryngologist Andrew McCall, MD, and neurosurgeon Paul Gardner, MD, who work together to treat patients with brain tumors that affect hearing and balance. Barbara says, “The doctors and their office staff were so accommodating, nice, and sympathetic. They immediately put me at ease.”
After reviewing her MRIs, the doctors realized Barbara’s tumor had begun growing rapidly. If left untreated, it would likely lead to further hearing loss and possibly severe neurologic problems such as difficulty speaking, seeing, or maintaining balance.
The team at UPMC presented several treatment options to Barbara, including surgery to remove the tumor. Barbara was torn between feeling anxious to act fast and nervous about surgery and its possible complications. Luckily, she recalls, her doctors reassured her that she could take time to decide what was best for her. “They told me to call back any time with questions or concerns,” Barbara says.
About three weeks later, Barbara chose minimally invasive surgical removal of the acoustic neuroma, and she was scheduled right away. The surgeons made an incision behind Barbara’s left ear and removed the tumor.
Since Barbara’s tumor was near nerves leading to her facial muscles and left ear, the surgery could have caused partial or total hearing loss and drooping in the left side of her face, but her surgeons expertly avoided those nerves.
Barbara says, “I had many concerns going into this surgery — from complications to how much of my hair they would have to shave off.” Thanks to the minimally invasive approach, the doctors told her, only a small area behind her ear would be shaved. “They always answered every question I had, even little ones like this,” Barbara says. “They really took a genuine interest in every way to address all my concerns.”
Today Barbara is back at work and overwhelmed with gratitude. “Thanks to them, I don’t look any different at all. You can’t even tell I had brain surgery,” Barbara says. “Facing a surgery like this was so overwhelming, but Dr. McCall, Dr. Gardner, and their staff are the dream team, as far as I’m concerned. I feel blessed to have had them as my doctors.”
Our patient stories profile a number of patients who have had minimally invasive brain surgery at UPMC. Although everyone's care experience is unique, we hope that sharing these stories will help other prospective patients and their families better understand these procedures and their potential benefits.
Barbara's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.