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2 sisters seek meningioma treatment at Pacific Neuroscience Institute
May 2, 2024

Two Sisters, One Scary Diagnosis

by Guest Author

Neurosurgeon Dr. Daniel Kelly treated the siblings for the same condition: a benign brain tumor called a meningioma. Before they found Dr. Kelly, though, each had a difficult journey to a diagnosis.

Loretta Joseph and her sister, Denise, both were diagnosed with benign brain tumors at age 66. Although their symptoms weren’t exactly the same, their paths both led to Daniel F. Kelly, MD, neurosurgeon at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute®.

In 2017, Denise had been practicing yoga when, at the end of her session, she did a headstand that led to a painful blackout. A cervical MRI showed an abnormality, but that was unrelated to the pain. Over the next eight months, the painful blackouts continued—triggered by actions as simple as swallowing or taking a walk in the park.

Visits to doctors didn’t result in solutions, only frustration, until Denise’s dentist took time to listen and then recommended she see a neurologist, who prescribed a brain MRI. Within minutes of completing the scan, the neurologist called to say Denise had two meningiomas (the most common brain tumor in the covering of the brain) and that she needed to see a brain surgeon as soon as possible.

“I was both frightened and relieved, because I finally learned what was wrong,” recalls Denise. “Looking back, I now know there were other symptoms, like losing my balance when I closed my eyes to wash my hair in the shower, not being able to walk in a straight line and difficulty bending over to tie my shoes.”

HISTORY REPEATING

Five years after Denise’s diagnosis and surgery, her younger sister, Loretta, caught a shoe on the tile at home, causing her to fall and hit her head on an end table. Noticing headaches and light sensitivity, Loretta reached out to her primary care physician, who recommended only rest for recovery.

Two weeks later, Loretta suffered the most severe headache she’d ever had. It felt like her head was going to explode. Her doctor prescribed migraine medicine, but no MRI. Yet Loretta knew in her gut that something was wrong, and after six weeks of debilitating headaches she switched doctors.

When she saw primary care physician Kamyar Kamjoo, MD, he ordered a brain MRI. The next morning he called Loretta with a tumor diagnosis—a meningioma just like Denise had.

But the recommended neurosurgeon had a six-week wait list. Frustrated, Loretta started searching the internet and discovered Dr. Kelly and the Pacific Neuroscience Institute. When Denise confirmed she has seen Dr. Kelly for her surgery, Loretta called his office right away and spoke with nurse practitioner Amy Eisenberg, who reviewed her MRI and told Loretta she needed to be seen urgently.

FAITH RESTORED

Because they had seen so many doctors who didn’t take their symptoms seriously or misdiagnosed them, both sisters had lost confidence in medical professionals. But Dr. Kelly restored their faith. Each has a minimally invasive keyhole surgery within a week of her initial visit, and both went home the day after surgery—Denise with a two-inch incision behind her ear and Loretta with a small incision hidden in the eyebrow.

“Dr. Kelly is amazing,” says Denise. “You immediately sense his confidence and compassion. He listened and understood everything I was experiencing. It was such a relief.” Her entire experience at Saint John’s Health Center was nothing short of exceptional. “I couldn’t believe how caring every single person was. I’m a spiritual person, and so many shared their faith with me. It was literally like a staff of angels.”

Loretta echoes these sentiments, adding, “Everyone explained what was going to happen along the way. The chaplain came in and prayed with me after my surgery. I was so surprised that I could go home the next day!”

BACK TO NORMAL

Seven years later, Denise is back to normal activities—walking, gardening and playing pickleball. The meningioma hasn’t returned. Loretta’s recover is going well, with the minimal complication that her taste has been affected, a result of her tumor pressing on her left olfactory nerve. “I don’t taste chocolate and certain sweets, which is difficult when you are a baker. Now my family tastes everything I bake for friends or clients.”

“Meningiomas are more common in women, probably because the tumors often have estrogen and progesterone receptors,” explains Dr. Kelly. “We sporadically see them running in families, but such genetic syndromes are quite uncommon. Dr. Ora Gordon, Saint John’s Cancer Institute director and geneticist, is running tests to see if there is a genetic component, especially given their cousin recently was diagnosed with a brain tumor.”

Dr. Kelly, Loretta and Denise all encourage you to listen to your body and get second opinions if you aren’t getting a proactive response from your physician. “Often, brain tumor diagnoses get delayed because doctors typically consider them uncommon or even rare,” says Dr. Kelly. “Symptoms can initially be quite subtle, and may include headaches, balance issues, weakness or sensory loss on one side of the body, a loss of smell and taste, personality changes and seizures. Brain tumor-related headaches generally evolve slowly and become persistent and severe as the tumors grow. There is a point where patients should advocate for a deeper dive,” he adds.

For Loretta and Denise, they are happy and relieved to be back to doing the things they love and are forever grateful to Dr. Kelly, his team at Pacific Neuroscience Institute and the caregivers at Saint John’s Health Center.

Adapted from the Spring 2024 issue of Heath Matters from Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

More information: 310-582-7450

About Dr. Daniel F. Kelly

Daniel F. Kelly, MD, a board-certified neurosurgeon, is the Director and one of the founders of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, Director of the Pacific Brain Tumor Center and Pacific Pituitary Disorders Center, and is Professor of Neurosurgery at Saint John’s Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. Considered to be one of the top neurosurgeons in the US, he has been awarded the Southern California SuperDoctors distinction 15 years in a row.

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Last updated: May 14th, 2024