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When Julia Bowie completed her waitress shift on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, she looked forward to a low-key weekend. It turned out to be anything but, ending with her being transported to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in a medevac helicopter.
It started innocently enough. After her shift, Julia noticed a tingling sensation in her feet but chalked it up to the new shoes she was breaking in. Back home in Hughesville, Maryland, Julia awoke the next morning with numbness in her extremities. As a nursing student, Julia knew this was not normal and went to the local emergency room.
After doing a full-body CT scan, the staff consulted with Faheem Sandhu, MD, PhD, the director of Spine Surgery at MedStar Georgetown. Julia was informed that she had a very large mass between her brain and spine. “No one ever expects to hear that,” says Julia, “let alone at 21.” According to Dr. Sandhu, “Everyone knew this was very serious and that it needed to be treated at a tertiary hospital.” So, within the hour, Julia was airborne.
The grade and class of Julia’s tumor were unclear. But its sheer size (between 6 and 7 centimeters) was cause for concern, along with the fact that it had created a syrinx (a fluid collection inside the spinal cord) in the thoracic, upper cervical, and brain stem regions. Though Dr. Sandhu specializes in minimally invasive neurosurgery, the extent of Julia’s tumor precluded this.
“The procedures we performed were a laminectomy and intradural removal of the spinal cord tumor,” says Dr. Sandhu. This entailed first removing the bone in order to access Julia’s spine. Then, using a microscope, Dr. Sandhu painstakingly dissected normal spinal cord free from tumor tissue. He noted that the use of the operating microscope, along with electro-physiological monitoring of the motor functions, helped protect the spinal cord. Since the tumor had grown inside the spinal cord, it was a very delicate procedure. At the conclusion of surgery, Julia’s bones were reassembled with plates and screws.
Julia’s tumor was a benign astrocytoma. According to Dr. Sandhu, its cause is inconclusive. “Sometimes they’re random, sometimes there’s a genetic predisposition, or sometimes it can be environmental.”
Since her tumor was not malignant, Julia didn’t need radiation or chemotherapy, but she did undergo weeks of rehabilitation. “I pretty much had to learn how to be a human again,” she says. “I had to relearn how to walk on my own. I learned patience.”
As an aspiring nurse, Julia appreciated learning from her MedStar Georgetown nursing team, who freely shared their clinical expertise and modeled the importance of patient advocacy. “They advocated for my family to be able to visit (a challenge during COVID), and they’d even personally call and update them to keep everyone included. They went above and beyond and were wonderfully sweet,” she says.
Today, Julia works as a nurse in an ICU unit, and the only side effect she experiences is a slight weakness in her right hand. Julia credits Dr. Sandhu’s surgical skill and the fast response of her MedStar Georgetown team for her successful outcome. “Given the extent of the surgery, I consider myself very lucky,” says Julia. “And I gained an important perspective from the other side of the bed.”
By Karen Hansen
Visit MedStarHealth.org/SpineSurgery to learn more. To schedule an appointment with one of our specialists, call 301-856-2323.