Why Group Health? Members Say it Best

Seizure Leads to Brain Tumor Diagnosis


Michelle Small

Relaxing at home on a typical Thursday night in 2011, Michelle Small had a seizure. Her husband called 911 and Michelle was taken to Virginia Mason. On Saturday, after a day of scans and tests, she met neurosurgeon Chong Lee, MD, PhD, who gave her some unsettling news — she had a brain tumor.

Michelle met Dr. Lee again, along with her husband and parents, in his office on Tuesday. He told her that the MRI and other tests indicated she had a tumor on the left side of her brain.

"Obviously, I was overwhelmed. Once I started crying, he didn't say anything. He let me and my husband have some time together. His priority was to let us be us — to make sure we felt comfortable," she said.

Dr. Lee helped Michelle understand her choices: wait six months and then do another MRI to see if the tumor had changed, do a biopsy to get a sample for further testing, or go ahead with brain surgery to try to remove it.

"He made it clear that it was my choice, and answered all my questions," she said. "He made me feel like everything was going to be okay, and that he was there to make it okay."

Michelle came to an immediate decision. "When I told him that I wanted to go ahead with the surgery, and my family — my mom, dad, and husband — agreed, he encouraged us in the process and said that he thought it was a good decision. But he gave us the choice."

Michelle checked into Virginia Mason hospital two weeks later for surgery. "I didn't want to wait any longer. I wanted the tumor gone — the sooner the better," she said.

"Once I got to the pre-op room, I met every doctor who was going to be on my surgical team, as well as the main nurse. That brought a huge peace to me. They told me what they were going to do and gave me the rundown of the day. It made me feel comfortable to have a conversation with them. Then they wheeled me into the operating room, talking to me the whole time as I fell asleep for my surgery," she said.

Her surgery was on a Thursday and after a few days of recovery in the hospital, she went home the following Monday. "Life back home was hard for a while," she said. "I was swollen, but once the swelling went down, I felt pretty normal. But I had to be careful of doing too much. I knew I had to relax."

Dr. Lee called Michelle when he got the pathology report to explain the nature of her tumor. "He said it was a very slow-growing type that they believe I had from a young age," she said. Dr. Lee told her that he and his team removed about 70 percent of the tumor, but weren't able to get all of it because it was near the speech center of her brain.

"We have to keep an eye on it," she said. "My team's advice was to get an MRI every year and if or when the tumor starts growing, figure out what to do next. But until then, let it be. I was told, 'It took you 27 years to find out you had it. It could take another 27 years for it to start growing again.'"

Kudos to Group Health Physicians and Staff

Michelle has had a follow-up MRI since her surgery, followed by meetings with her doctor. Her MRI in October, 2012, showed no new tumor growth. She is healthy, happy, and extremely thankful for her experience with Dr. Lee and Group Health's team of providers and staff who collaborated on her care.

"I'm so grateful to Dr. Lee for walking me through that difficult time. I always knew he was giving 250 percent to every aspect of my care, and that he wanted what was best for me."

Even Group Health schedulers, she said, would try to make her care less stressful by bundling her various appointments on the same day to minimize the number of times she had to drive to Seattle. Little things like that, she said, in addition to Dr. Lee's caring demeanor and professionalism helped form her lasting positive impression of Group Health.

"In the hardest time, you don't know what's happening. Throughout everything, Dr. Lee really restored hope to my heart that everything was going to be okay, and that he was there to make it okay."

Posted: February 2013

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