Advice from a Spinal Cord Tumor Patient: "Find the Right Doctor"
Todd Gratehouse was concerned. After learning from his neurologist that an ependymoma (spinal cord tumor) had developed in his upper spine, questions raced through his mind.
Would he lose the ability to walk?
What about bowel and bladder control?
Was he going to die as a result of the tumor?
The symptoms Todd experienced had gradually worsened over a period of a few years. Subtle weakness and soreness in his legs became especially bothersome when working out at the gym, and had grown more noticeable. He also experienced a tingling sensation in his fingers. After an MRI revealed the tumor, Todd researched treatment options.
Neurosurgeon Mark Burnett, MD, an Executive Medical Director of the NeuroTexas Institute at St. David’s HealthCare, was the second physician Todd saw but turned out to be his top choice. After a lengthy consult with Dr. Burnett, Todd canceled appointments with other physicians located between Austin and Dallas.
“When I met Dr. Burnett, I liked his first question,” Todd says. “He asked, ‘How is your mind doing?’ I was impressed that he was interested in my mental state because I had been quite concerned after hearing that I had a spinal cord tumor.” Todd also found reassurance in Dr. Burnett’s open communication style, recalling that the neurosurgeon was fully engaged in the process of patient education.
“Dr. Burnett made a sketch of the spinal cord and told me what I should expect and what he anticipated in terms of a prognosis,” Todd says. The diagram helped Todd clearly comprehend how the tumor, located at C7 (in the cervical, or upper, spine) created the symptoms he experienced. Dr. Burnett explained that the weakness in Todd’s legs was directly related to the tumor while the tingling in his fingers was caused by the bulging disc located just above the tumor.
In March 2009, Dr. Burnett resected Todd’s ependymoma in a procedure performed in one of the neuroscience surgical suites at St. David’s Medical Center. Going in to the surgery, Todd had full confidence in his physician.
“Dr. Burnett told me that he would not access the motor nerves (nerves that control the movement of muscles),” Todd explains. “He said that during surgery he would use technology to monitor his proximity to these nerves. This was important to me because I was concerned about being paralyzed.”
Before surgery, Todd received another dose of reassurance. “Dr. Burnett called me at home the night before the operation and told me not to worry and that everything was set up and ready for me.”
Following the procedure, Todd spent a night in ICU before going to a private room on the Neuroscience floor. Six days after surgery, Todd walked out of the hospital and began recuperating with outpatient physical therapy. He returned to work in four weeks and to the gym in eight weeks.
Dr. Burnett brought Todd’s case to the neuroscience conference sessions held at St. David’s, where other specialists offered suggestions throughout Todd’s recovery.
“I was happy to hear that my case was being discussed by this group of professionals,” Todd says. “I benefited from receiving multiple opinions without having to see multiple doctors.”
Months after surgery, Todd offers advice for others who face similar situations: “Finding the right doctor is the number one thing you have to do. Shop around and find a doctor who is really interested in your well-being and who is experienced in the procedure that you need.”