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The stabbing pains in Cordé Reed’s face were not new. She’d had irritating nerve pain in her right cheek and nose since 2008. Her neurologist in her home state of New Jersey diagnosed the pain as trigeminal neuralgia, a disorder of the trigeminal nerve in the face.
Cordé’s condition escalated in 2011 with bouts of sudden, excruciating pain radiating throughout the side of her face. Her doctor prescribed medication, but because it made Cordé feel “off-kilter and loopy,” she opted to forego it and live with the pain.
Cordé’s quality of life was dropping rapidly. Though the bouts of nerve pain, which she describes as “electric shocks,” didn’t last long, they frequently drove her to tears. For five years, Cordé lived with the “lightning bolts” of pain.
In January 2016, Cordé woke up in the middle of the night to a piercing pain in her face worse than any she’d felt before – and it didn’t stop. Her husband Brian took her to her local emergency room, where she was given several painkillers that did not work. She was then prescribed anticonvulsant drugs, but they caused undesired side effects, including making her brain exceptionally foggy. Not only did the pain persist through higher and higher doses of medication, but her speech and thought function were impaired by the drugs. This impacted critical facets of her life. During her bouts of pain, Cordé shut herself in her office at work. She had difficulty taking care of her family – husband, two daughters, and three dogs – because the pain kept her in bed. She was afraid to drive in case an episode occurred, and she couldn’t do many of the simple things that were important to her and her family. She continued to take the medication, but the pain endured.
“The pain just wouldn’t go away,” Cordé says. “I couldn’t function. I couldn’t be a mom. I couldn’t do my job. I felt like my life was not mine, but stolen and controlled by trigeminal neuralgia. I hated it."
“My neurologist said she wanted me to go to the best,” Cordé says. “I’m so glad she did.”
From her own research, Cordé knew that others who underwent surgery to treat their trigeminal neuralgia experienced lengthy recovery times and ended up with conspicuous cranial scars. Based on reports of Dr. Sekula’s surgical techniques, his patients typically dealt with neither.
So, she followed her doctor’s advice and traveled to Pittsburgh.
Trigeminal neuralgia is typically the result of a blood vessel pressing on the trigeminal nerve as it exits the brain stem. This compression causes damage to the protective coating around the nerve (the myelin sheath). Dr. Sekula treated Cordé using microvascular decompression, a minimally invasive procedure in which the blood vessel and nerve are separated, and a “pillow” is placed between them to prevent further compression. UPMC is one of the most experienced centers in the nation for the procedure, which requires only a small incision behind the ear and a craniotomy the size of a quarter to allow access to the nerve.
Cordé was released from the hospital two days after surgery. She was thrilled with Dr. Sekula’s expertise, especially when she woke up after surgery with no trace of the stabbing pains that had plagued her for years.
Now, Cordé is back to work, back to driving her kids to sports tournaments, and back to doing what she loves without putting her life on hold to endure debilitating pain.
“Dr. Sekula is a miraculous man who truly changed my life. I only wish he was closer to my home,” Cordé says. “I am very blessed and I am quite humbled in realizing the intricacy of this procedure. Because of Dr. Sekula’s brilliant surgical skill and finesse, I was given my life back.”
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.
Cordé's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.
Dr. Raymond Sekula discusses treatment options for trigeminal neuralgia.