Sitting with her mother at the Sanford USD Medical Center, Alyssa Bossman waited for a phone call that would tell her what was coming next. She had a CT scan that afternoon and was about to receive the test results.
It had been a long week up to that point for Bossman, a senior at the University of South Dakota who grew up in Humboldt, South Dakota. That was the case even before she learned that she had a brain tumor.
She’d been on vacation with her sister Jackie in Scottsdale, Arizona, and hadn’t felt normal for any of it. Headaches and stomach discomfort were near-constant companions. She was thinking it could be a problem with vertigo, something she’d dealt with in the past, except the symptoms weren’t the same this time.
On the way home after landing in Sioux Falls, she and her sister stopped at a gas station. Bossman got up out of the car and discovered she couldn’t walk.
“That was the breaking point for me,” said Bossman, who had been dealing with various discomforts for months. “It was like I couldn’t move. That was scary.”
Hearing you have a brain tumor
She made an initial doctor visit that day. When the symptoms did not change over the weekend, she got a CT scan on Monday and waited for the results at the hospital. It was not an easy thing to wait for.
“I had it in my head that if they called me directly, it meant they had bad news,” Bossman said. “Then I looked down and my phone was ringing. I looked at my mom and said ‘Can you answer it?’”
She could not hear what her mother was learning over the phone, but it wasn’t difficult figuring it out.
“My poor mom — she had to stay calm while she was hearing all this,” Bossman said. “I watched her eyes. I could see her getting more teary-eyed. That was hard to watch. She got off the phone and she looked at me and said ‘Okay, they found something. You’re probably going to need surgery.’”
Together they cried for about a minute, Bossman said. And then it was “Well, what do we do now?” At least now she knew what was up. In that sense, it was a relief to find the cause of her pain.
Surgery comes next
Bossman got an MRI that would give her doctors more specific information about the tumor. She spent the night in the hospital, was prepped for surgery and on the operating table by 11 a.m. the next day. She was back in her hospital room recovering by 6 p.m.
“Her tumor was what we call ‘semi-emergent,’” said Dr. Eric Trumble, the Sanford Health neurosurgeon who performed the procedure. “With COVID around we’re sometimes postponing elective surgeries — things like hip replacements, for instance — but a brain tumor is not elective. She wasn’t going to die in the next hour but the longer she waited, the higher the risk of neurological deficit.”
Bossman’s tumor, the size of a small orange, was located near the spinal cord in the lower part of her brain. If not taken out, she would have risked a spinal fluid blockage that could have led to permanent neurological damage, or even death.
“There is a 10-20% chance it could come back but God willing, what she went through in August will be the only surgical intervention she’ll ever need,” said Dr. Trumble, who is South Dakota’s only board certified pediatric neurosurgeon. “She’ll have more MRIs over the course of the next two years to confirm that we’re not seeing a recurrence, but the odds are she will never need to have anything done for this ever again.”
Bossman aggressively pursued answers at the beginning of this process. The presence of the pandemic did not dissuade her. Statistics indicate that’s not always the case these days. Instead, people are postponing or canceling screenings that may put them at greater risk.
In short, that’s the wrong plan.
“It has not affected our ability to provide care,” Dr. Trumble said. “Nor has it affected the quality of care we provide.”
When Bossman woke up after her surgery, she could sense the long vertical incision in the back of her head, but that’s not what was causing the most pain. The area where the tumor had been located, however, was a different matter entirely.
“I guess my brain did not like that it was losing part of itself,” Bossman said, laughing. “It really hurt.”
Within a week she would learn the tumor was benign. It meant her immediate future was going to be much more comfortable than it would have been otherwise.
“There’s a big difference about what comes next depending on whether it’s benign or not,” she said. “I was lucky. It was a huge relief.”
She was back in school at USD by the following Wednesday after leaving the hospital on Saturday. Though far from fully recovered, it was important to her that she be there for the first day of classes for the fall semester. It was not easy. Coupled with the pandemic conditions, she was taking on a lot.
“You don’t realize how easy it is to get up every morning and remember how to walk until you can’t remember anymore,” she said. “I was always looking for something to grab that first week because it felt like I was going to tip over.”
Months later, Bossman is back to full speed, sorting through her senior year at USD as best she can during the pandemic. She will graduate in May with a business degree and is planning to begin an internship in Minneapolis next summer. Her communications with her providers before and after surgery were, in her words, “the best part of this.”
“They answered all my questions,” Bossman said. “Afterward when Dr. Trumble called me, he talked me through it very well. I thought it might be difficult talking to them or getting ahold of them but it wasn’t like that. I had a question a few weeks later about something and Dr. Trumble was available right away. That was really great.”
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