A few weeks before Christmas in 2011, 46-year-old Maria del Mar Minguez began having severe headaches and feeling very tired and weak. The pain and fatigue were making it difficult to perform her job as a psychologist in Valladolid, Spain, where she counseled people who lost their sight – a personally fulfilling job for Maria since she was born with visual impairments. Maria suspected that the symptoms were caused by a herniated disc that gave her similar problems in the past.
As Maria’s pain worsened and she began losing feeling in her limbs, she traveled to Madrid to visit the neurosurgeon who previously treated her herniated disc. However, this time an MRI showed a more serious problem. A tumor near the base of Maria’s skull was pressing against her brainstem, causing the symptoms. The tumor was diagnosed as a meningioma, or a tumor of the protective linings of the brain. If it wasn’t removed, it would continue to grow and cause severe and permanent damage to Maria’s brain.
Maria’s neurosurgeon informed her about the traditional surgical technique used in Spain to remove meningiomas, which involved a high risk of nerve damage and complications. He strongly recommended she travel to UPMC to undergo a minimally invasive procedure that has a very high success rate. “My doctor told me that I was too young to get the traditional surgery, that I shouldn’t take the risk,” said Maria. “I have two daughters, ages seven and nine. He told me to think of them.”
Still, the decision wasn’t easy. Maria’s insurance in Spain would not cover the procedure, let alone travel expenses. “I simply couldn’t afford to have the surgery, not without help,” Maria says. That’s when her community rallied to her aid, with everyone from her family to her coworkers chipping in to ensure that she could get the lifesaving care she needed. “I couldn’t believe my friends and family raised all that money to get me to the states to have the procedure done. I couldn’t be more thankful,” she said.
Maria began to communicate with a UPMC neurosurgeon who speaks her native Spanish. He explained how they would remove the tumor using the groundbreaking Endoscopic Endonasal Approach (EEA) that allows for the removal of tumors through the nose and sinuses. Maria and her family felt confident that this treatment could possibly remove the tumor, and within a few weeks, they were on their way to Pittsburgh.
During the 13-hour surgery, a tumor the size of a robin’s egg through Maria’s nose was removed, immediately taking the pressure off her brainstem. In the days following her surgery, Maria noticed that her symptoms were disappearing. “Little by little I was able to see improvements,” she said. “The pain I was feeling before the surgery was disappearing.”
Before and after the surgery, Maria and her family stayed at Family House, which allows patients and loved ones from outside the Pittsburgh area to stay and recuperate in a comfortable setting. During her time at Family House, Maria acknowledged that the caring staff and the other patients who enjoyed hearing about her experiences – often shared through her English interpreter – helped with her recovery. “Hearing all the other positive patient experiences at UPMC really helped put me in a good mood, and the care I received there was incredible. Actually, it was beyond incredible, I’ll always remember my time there,” she says.
Maria was able to return to Spain and reunite with her daughters within 15 days of her surgery. Just before flying home, Maria and her sister were enjoying shopping in downtown Pittsburgh when Maria's doctor asked her to come in for a quick follow-up scan to ensure she was progressing well. Maria laughs as she remembers, “My sister and I showed up at the hospital with armfuls of shopping bags. Luckily it was only a quick visit and we got right back to shopping.”
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.
Maria's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.