Kim Olson always knew she wanted to come back home to Jackson, Minnesota.
She grew up and graduated high school from the town of just over 3,000, before leaving to work in Pennsylvania for 32 years.
She retired and made the move back to the Midwest to bunk up with her sister in Jackson. Everyone was excited.
However, as soon as she moved in, her sister noticed something wasn’t right with Olson.
One of the first changes her sister noticed was how Olson struggled to do common, everyday tasks.
“I had no motivation at all,” she said.
At first she thought nothing of it and chalked up her lack of motivation to simply wanting to enjoy retirement.
“I guess it progressively got worse,” said Olson.
One morning, Olson’s sister went into the basement to find Olson sleeping on the floor next to her bed.
This was just one instance, but there were others.
“I don’t remember everything is part of the problem,” said Olson.
Eventually, her sister’s worry grew to the point where she thought Olson needed medical help.
Taken to the ER
She called the an ambulance to take Olson to the Sanford emergency room in Jackson. Olson didn’t remember anything about the visit.
Later on, she talked with the emergency room doctor who cared for her that night. He told her that she could barely communicate.
“He would ask a question, and I would take three minutes to think about it. Then, I’d give him a one-word answer,” she said.
The doctor ordered a CT scan, which again, Olson didn’t remember.
But, what happened next Olson will never forget. “I do remember him coming into the exam room and told me I have a large mass in my head, and I’m going to need surgery,” she said.
As soon as the mass was discovered, Olson took “a long bumpy ride” to Sanford Health, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
She arrived in Sioux Falls at 1 a.m.
Later that morning, she met with Sanford Health neurosurgeon Shawn Vuong, M.D., who said they’d need to remove the mass immediately.
“By the time she got to us, she was laying in bed, wouldn’t talk, completely out of it,” he said.
Dr. Vuong described the brain tumor as “massive.” However, it’s not uncommon for tumors of this size to go undetected, he said.
The reason? The brain doesn’t feel pain.
“Patients can’t feel the brain itself. It doesn’t have any pain pathways. So, they don’t really notice that extra pressure on the brain and that’s when (symptoms) develop, because of the pressure of the tumor on the brain.
“If it’s near the motor area, it will cause weakness. If it’s near the sensory area, it will cause sensory issues. And, when it’s frontal, it will cause executive function and personality problems,” said Dr. Vuong.
Olson had the operation to remove her tumor done on Monday.
She doesn’t remember any of it.
“I don’t remember waking up, I don’t remember the surgery, I don’t remember recovery. That day was just a big black hole.”
Dr. Vuong said the surgery took six hours.
Olson recovered for a few days, and was then transferred to the rehabilitation services unit at Sanford Health.
“For physical therapy appointments, they do an interview asking what my life is like. They want to know how many steps I have in my house. I said 12, so they had four practice steps that I had to go up and down until I got to 12.
“That seems pretty easy, but I was absolutely exhausted by the time I did 12,” she said.
Eventually, Olson was discharged and headed home.
But, when she got home she “had a mess to clean up.”
“I had a bunch of phone calls to make. I neglected to change my address, or cancel services I’m getting at my home in Pennsylvania, all that stuff. I just didn’t do any of it,” she said.
Her sister said she could spot the night and day difference in Olson’s behavior immediately.
“My sister said, ‘oh my god, I can’t believe you’re actually answering the phone!’ I started doing things around the house too, like unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming the basement,” said Olson.
Before the operation, Olson didn’t realize just how bad she was. But all her family members, not just her sister, did.
At a family vacation, Olson’s aunts were together and also immediately noticed how much better Olson was – how engaged she was in everyday life and conversation.
It was a happy ending they didn’t know if they would get.
“They were all afraid I was going to die,” she said.
Olson says she considers herself both lucky to be alive, and lucky to have such a supportive family. Had her sister not called the ambulance, her story may have ended differently.
When wrapping up an interview with Sanford Health News, she said her final bits of advice would be to listen to your family and loved ones’ concerns, whether you want to hear them or not.
“I really have to credit my sister for finally just going, ‘You have to go to the emergency room,’ because the CT (scan) was the answer. Even though you don’t want to hear you have a brain surgery, at least that answered some questions of why my behavior changed.”
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