Life Saved By Emergency Brain Surgery
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Inside the music room at St. Michael's High School, all eyes are on Amy Effler as she leads her chorus class in preparing for an upcoming concert.
The sopranos, along with the altos and basses, keep singing a refrain from a song called "Believe" that includes the line: "There's no time to waste, there's so much to celebrate."
Those words seem all too fitting, echoing in a classroom where the much-beloved teacher continues to celebrate being alive. At the beginning of each school year, this teacher stands in front of her classes and shares her personal story.
"I tell them the truth," says Effler.
She goes into detail about the summer of 2016 and how at the age of 28, she had a seizure that changed everything.
Effler was then the epitome of good health and fitness, running six miles a day and drinking lots of water. So what could have caused the seizure?
That's what the emergency department team at University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Easton wanted to know. Multiple tests, including an MRI, were quickly ordered.
The answer: a sizeable mass on the left side of her brain.
Within 24 hours of the diagnosis, Effler and her husband, Kris Effler, were introduced to UM Shore Medical Group neurosurgeon Khalid Kurtom, MD, FACS. "I said to her, 'We now know what caused the seizure, but we don't know what this mass is. I can't yet tell you how aggressive the tumor is. We can go in and take a piece of it to biopsy or we can go in and try to take it all out,'" explains Dr. Kurtom.
A Decision to Operate
Effler had to make a fast decision and opted for the best chance of survival, which meant removing the whole tumor. But this was not your typical operation because she needed to be awake during the brain surgery.
Dr. Kurtom recalls what he said to Effler, "The safest way to do this is while you are awake so I can actually test you as the operation proceeds, figure out where the functional areas are and get close to them without damaging them. This is very risky – even if I do an amazing operation, your brain will be stunned. That means you are going to wake up without being able to talk or move the right side of your body."
He adds, "It is very hard to describe to a patient what this will mean — it is one thing to talk about it, but it is another to actually experience it."
As expected, after a 5-hour surgery, which Effler does not remember, she could not walk or talk. "My whole right side was paralyzed. My whole language center of the brain was wiped out, so I had to relearn how to add and subtract and pretty much every last thing," she says. She underwent a few weeks of inpatient rehab in the Requard Center for Acute Rehabilitation in the Easton hospital, followed by months of outpatient rehabilitation, including arduous physical, occupational and speech therapy. She also took oral chemotherapy and had many weeks of radiation therapy to ensure the best outcome.
"I was ignorant about how hard I was going to have to work to recover, but the team at Shore Regional Health was awesome and so supportive and helped me along the way," says Effler. "I also couldn't have recovered as well as I have without the love and support from my husband. He is the best teammate in the world. I also was so encouraged by Talbot County Schools Superintendent Dr. Kelly Griffith, who took the time to send me flowers on multiple occasions. The birthday video that was made by the St. Michaels school staff and students was the best present I had ever received, and motivated me to work even harder. I have to give many people credit. There are too many to list!"
"I don't think she knows that during her recovery, her husband would send me videos of her. I probably have 20 videos of her lifting weights and making amazing progress," says Dr. Kurtom.
As a music teacher and singer, Effler knows some tricks of the trade that worked to her advantage. Every night, she would lie in bed and practice building her vocal cords with a clicking in her throat. "They said speech would be the last thing to come back, but for me, it was actually the first thing to come back," explains Effler.
Back to School
Now almost three and a half years past that initial seizure and brain surgery, Effler is still recovering. She walks with a slight limp and her right hand continues to be impaired. "I learned to write with my left hand, but am not very good at it. I also play the piano with one hand, and I am better with one hand than most people are with two," she says with a laugh. She can poke fun, but there are still days when she is quite frustrated because the challenges of recovery continue. "I accept things, but I am never going to stop trying to be as strong as possible."
Effler worked so hard with one goal always top of mind. All she wanted was to get back to the classroom – and to the annual slate of concerts and musical plays she directs for St. Michaels' elementary, middle and high schools — so she could "make great music with the students." After her one-year absence, the Talbot County School System welcomed her back with open arms, as did her students. So yes, there is so much to celebrate!
For additional information about the services provided by the neurosurgery team at UM Shore Medical Group, call 410-820-9117.