Destination Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center: Gamma Knife Surgery
When she couldn't find a cure in Wyoming, Gail was healed at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center
Gail VanderPloeg doesn't remember exactly when her symptoms started. She suspects they first became noticeable in 2002 - her balance had gradually deteriorated, and she was experiencing dizziness on a regular basis. One morning, something extremely odd happened.
“I was laying in bed, and I had the window open,” Gail recalls. “It was springtime, and I couldn't hear the birds on my left side, but I could on my right.”
Gail’s doctors near Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin, where she lives with her husband, Vance, didn't think enough of her symptoms to perform any tests, such as an MRI. She remembers leaving the clinic with feelings of self-doubt.
“I would say, ‘this must just be in my head,’” Gail says. “It must be something I’m making up. I’m not really dizzy. I’m OK.”
Then came the moment she knew something was significantly wrong. One day in 2004, Gail sat down at the desk where she has worked for the past 20 years as a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Suddenly, the desk moved - or so it seemed - all by itself. That was when Gail knew something had to be done.
She learned that an ear, nose and throat specialist from Billings, Montana was making a stop in Cody, Wyoming for a special outreach clinic. Gail booked an appointment and, somewhat fearfully, made the 55 mile journey to get a diagnosis.
The doctor performed a hearing test and an MRI. Several days later, he contacted Gail and told her she had developed acoustic neuroma - a slow growing, non-cancerous tumor - on the nerve between her left ear and brain. The doctor recommended a specialist and a facility that could perform a surgical treatment to remove the tumor.
The issue with surgical removal of acoustic neuroma is that it almost always results in a loss of hearing in the affected ear. Gail spent hours online researching hospitals that treated her condition and may be able to preserve what hearing she still had.
At the time, no doctors in the area had experience treating acoustic neuroma. Her research led her to the names of doctors who could help her located from California to Massachusetts and many places between. But it was a doctor from Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center, also an acquaintance with Gail's sister-in-law Mary Fleis, who personally called Gail’s home that made the decision regarding where to go for care simple.
“I needed a doctor to tell me what procedure would be the best for me at that time in my life.”
At that time, Gail was enjoying all of the natural beauty that the Big Horn Basin had to offer through some of her favorite outdoor activities, such as horseback riding, target shooting and four wheeling. Total hearing loss in one ear and the accompanying loss of balance simply wouldn’t be acceptable.
So when Gail was looking for a doctor to tell her the procedure she needed, she learned that Aurora Health Care had her Answer: Gamma Knife radiosurgery.
Gamma Knife treatment: a surprisingly "fun" procedure
The Gamma Knife may not be what you’re envisioning. A physical “knife” isn't actually used in the procedure. Instead, highly focused beams of radiation target malformations ranging from brain tumors to acoustic neuromas. Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center became the first facility in Wisconsin to offer Gamma Knife treatments in 1999.
Over the course of several hours, the patient sits for several sessions during which these beams are used to kill the abnormal cells without damaging normal, surrounding tissue. In Gail’s case, this outpatient procedure was a way to destroy the tumor cells in her ear without causing any further hearing loss.
Neurological Care Services
So, in december of 2004, Gail and Vance traveled more that 1,000 miles to Milwaukee with high hopes that the Gamma Knife procedure was truly the solution they had been looking for. It wasn't long before Gail knew she had made the right choice.
“The group of doctors that I worked with to target the tumor were wonderful and calmed my fears,” Gail says. “I remember one doctor was saying, ‘I will give you a 100% guarantee that your tumor will be cured by Gamma Knife radiation.”
Having never heard of a doctor giving anyone a 100% guarantee of a successful procedure, Gail and Vance were floored by this news.
Finally, the day of the procedure arrived.
“I couldn't have had a better group of [caregivers],” Gail says. “They were very kind, and understanding about my worries.”
Her caregivers gave careful consideration to her needs - taking breaks from the procedure when necessary, allowing her to walk around and stretch her legs, even making sure she had the type of music she wanted to listen to.
“It actually turned out to be kind of fun!” Gail says with a laugh.
Four hours later, Gail’s Gamma Knife treatment was completed, and she was allowed to leave and enjoy the rest of her day. Surprisingly, the procedure was so low impact that she didn't feel the need to fill the prescription for pain medication she was given. She was even able to attend and fully enjoy a live, musical presentation of “A Christmas Carol” later that week.
“I felt healthy enough after this procedure that I went to a play and had the time of my life in Milwaukee!”
A few days after the treatment, Gail had an unusual experience. Suddenly, she heard a “crazy sound” with her left ear. Though the experience is hard to explain, she compares the mysterious sound to bubblewrap being popped.
“That was the tumor dying,” she later discovered.
Nine years after Gamma Knife radiation treatent
So how successful was the procedure in the long run? Just last year, Gail had a minor ear infection in her right ear - the ear that had not been affected by acoustic neuroma. A hearing test confirmed that her left and right ears were performing equally.
Had Gail chosen another form of treatment in 2004, things would be significantly different for her today.
“If I would have had surgery, I would not have hearing in my left ear,” she marvels. “Because of Gamma Knife and the great procedure they did, I still have a lot of hearing in my left ear.”
“My balance is back, I’m not tripping, I’m not dizzy - I have no symptoms at all,” Gail states, enthusiastically. She adds, “I’m able to have a very normal life.”
Gamma Knife radiosurgery is used to treat a variety of neurological tumors and malformations. Specialists at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center opened the first facility in Wisconsin to offer Gamma Knife treatments in 1999. Visit our website for more information about your options for neurological care.