When eleven-year-old Conor McKiernan began having an unexpected bout of respiratory allergies, his family thought nothing of it. He was treated with antibiotics with the hope that the symptoms would subside and he could get back to doing what typical fifth graders do – have fun. But when he developed hearing loss in right ear, along with headaches and profound swelling on the right side of his face, his family knew something was wrong.
Conor was referred to an ear, nose, and throat doctor in his hometown of Los Angeles, California. An MRI scan revealed a grapefruit-sized angiofibroma (an invasive, noncancerous tumor composed of blood vessels) that was spreading into his sinus area and pressing on the optic nerve and other vital areas.
The tumor was so large that it had eroded the bone separating the sinuses from the brain. If the tumor was not removed, Conor’s symptoms would continue to progress and he would ultimately suffer severe and permanent brain damage, or even death.
“There were no words to explain what was going through my mind when we were in that doctor’s office and they told us the news,” said Conor’s mother Jill. “I knew we had a long road ahead of us to get through this.”
The McKiernans sought the opinions of neurosurgeons, otolaryngologists, and oncologists from around the country, who all expressed concern about the extremely large size of the tumor, the risk of bleeding from the major arteries to the brain, and successfully reaching the tumor without damaging vital areas in the brain.
“All the treatment options presented to us seemed like they were just too invasive, and may end up doing more harm than good, “said Jill. “Nothing was working out.”
However, through the countless consultations and appointments, the McKiernans picked up a bit of helpful information.
“I kept hearing about UPMC and how they could handle this type of tumor,” said Jill. “I was thinking that no way could we be here in Los Angeles, one of the largest cities in America, and nobody could help us. So, I was a bit skeptical at first.”
The McKiernans turned to the internet and were amazed by what they discovered.
“I thought there was no way I was going to find my son’s surgeon online, but after doing research, watching videos, and reading about the doctors at UPMC, I started to change my mind,” said Jill.
The McKiernans reached out to Drs. Carl Snyderman and Paul Gardner, co-directors of the UPMC Center for Cranial Base Surgery, and were surprised to hear that the entire tumor could be removed using endoscopic techniques through the mouth.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was so impressed with those doctors and I could tell right away that they were the ones who could help Conor.”
Within a week, the McKiernans were on a plane bound for Pittsburgh.
Drs. Snyderman and Gardner were able to remove the entire tumor through an incision in the mouth above the gums – immediately relieving the pressure from the surrounding structures of Conor’s brain.
Due to the size of the tumor and its rich blood supply, it was necessary to remove the tumor in two stages, allowing time for Conor to recover from blood loss. Using this minimally invasive approach, the doctors were able to avoid disturbing essential blood vessels, nerves, and other areas of the brain.
“They came out and said ‘we got it all,’ and I couldn’t believe it,” said Jill. "I was so happy.”
Almost immediately following the surgery, Conor’s health began to improve. His hearing loss subsided, and his other previous symptoms vanished. He was quickly returning to the healthy and vibrant boy he once was.
One of the highlights of Conor’s time in Pittsburgh was attending a Pittsburgh Penguins game, and getting to meet the team players and captain, Sidney Crosby.
“It was great getting to meet him and all the other players on the team. Now I can tell all my friends I know pro hockey players,” said Conor.
Shortly following the McKiernans return to California, Conor returned to school, began playing baseball, and leading a normal and active life.
“If you look at him now, you can’t tell he had brain surgery less than a year ago,” says Jill. “He is doing everything boys his age do, and it’s just incredible. I can’t thank the staff at UPMC enough.”
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.
Conor's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.