New York native Becca Kerschinske and her husband, James, have lived all over the country. In 2018, the 2 were making their home in Kansas City when isolated symptoms revealed a serious health concern for Becca.
"I'd have head rushes from time to time, and sometimes my vision would become blurry," she explains. "But it would be allergy season, or I'd have had a stressful day at work, so the symptoms that seem telling now were easily explained away then."
Becca's mom had passed away the prior year, and despite having had a very close relationship with her, Becca didn't cry over the loss.
"That seemed strange to me, but you don't march into a neurologist's office and say, 'I can't cry. I must have a tumor,' do you?" she says.
But Becca did have a brain tumor. Looking back, she feels the inability to connect with her emotions was more indicative than she had realized. She began to investigate the symptoms seriously when an experience during a visit from her sister literally opened her eyes.
"We were sitting together on our sofa," Becca recalls. "My sister moved closer to me to show me something and suddenly disappeared. 'Where did you go?' I asked her. 'What do you mean? I'm right here,' she said. She had moved into my peripheral vision and vanished. Until then, I hadn't realized how poor the vision in my right eye had become."
Collaborative care determines the problem
Becca made an appointment with an ophthalmologist and had a full exam and a number of tests. She didn't know it yet, but neuro-ophthalmologist Thomas Whittaker, MD, JD, of The University of Kansas Health System had been called and was on standby to field questions and offer guidance during her appointment.
"They must have had some idea ahead of time of what we were going to find," Becca says. "Everyone went above and beyond, and I am so grateful."
The ophthalmologist spoke with Dr. Whittaker several times during the appointment. When Becca's right optic nerve – which would be peachy-pink when healthy – appeared half white due to atrophy, Dr. Whittaker advised her to get an MRI at the health system. What's more, he advised that she do so that very day.
"I checked in at the emergency department, and my husband came to meet me," Becca says. "Throughout this experience, everyone I interacted with, in every office and every department, was considerate and empathetic. I always felt like a person first and a patient second."
The emergency department staff ordered Becca's MRI.
"The emergency room was busy that day, and I still didn't understand that my situation was a big deal," Becca says. "I suggested that maybe I should go on home and come back another time. I give the staff so much credit for encouraging me, kindly but firmly, to stay."
A neurosurgery resident spoke with Becca and James about her MRI results.
"He could not have handled the situation better," Becca says. "He told me I had a tumor, but that it was the best possible kind to have. He told me that in 90% of cases, it was benign, and that the health system team had the best expertise and experience to give me the best chance at an excellent outcome. I was in shock, but he was reassuring."
The physicians expected the meningioma was benign, but were concerned for Becca's vision. She said she'd like to go home and think the news over, but the staff had other thoughts.
"Once again, they were kind, but firm," she says. "They said they would like to check me in now and plan surgery very soon."
A surgical solution
The next morning, Becca and James met neurosurgeon Michael Kinsman, MD.
"I expected him to be distant and unrelatable, but he was the opposite," Becca says. "He was incredibly intelligent, and in the half hour that we spoke, he made me feel so comfortable and confident. I knew he had the right skill set for the procedure, but he also took time to understand who I am so he could plan the best care for me personally."
"With tumors like Becca's, it is very helpful to have a team experienced in providing care for similar situations," Dr. Kinsman says. "It makes a difficult case and postoperative recovery go more smoothly. I am thankful for our multidisciplinary team that gives patients a great chance for an excellent recovery."
With a degree in engineering and professional experience in quality and process improvement in healthcare environments, Becca knew more than most about operating rooms. But she hadn't experienced one as a patient.
"I'd always wondered what it was like for patients," she says. "Do they feel vulnerable? Do they feel exposed? I know this is crazy to say, but when I was wheeled into the OR, it felt like I was entering a spa. There was a beautiful blue light in the room. The staff all introduced themselves and said, 'It's nice to meet you, Becca.' It was very inviting and calming."
Becca's surgery was expected to last 4-6 hours, but instead took almost 10, as blood vessels were intertwined with the tumor mass. Dr. Kinsman and team removed as much of the tumor as possible. The interdisciplinary care team – a collaborative group of experts in various specialties – proposed a 30-day course of radiation therapy to reduce the tumor further and minimize the risk of regrowth.
Becca retained 20/20 vision in her left eye. Through follow-up care with Dr. Whittaker and therapy, she unexpectedly and happily recovered 80% of the vision in her right eye. She is feeling well, is able to drive, and has regained close to her normal levels of energy.
She credits the team of The University of Kansas Health System for her ability to return to the things she loves: travel, kayaking and exploring the cities in which her 2 adult sons live.
"I was so impressed throughout by everyone's initiative to address the problem quickly and efficiently," she says. "From the moment of my first appointment, the whole health system had my back, and physicians worked collaboratively to make the best decisions for me. They kind of said, 'Yes, this is a big deal, but we've got you.' They were in it with us, every step of the way."