THE LIGHT SERIES
When life delivers darkness, we have the ability to bring light, for ourselves and for one another.
Meet Mindy Whisnant, wife to Greg, Mom to Ashley, and Clinical Research Associate at Decatur Memorial Hospital’s (DMH) Cancer Care.
A former CrossFitter turned strongman competition enthusiast, she’s one of the toughest, yet most tender people in Macon County. But her toughness isn’t derived from lifting weights or woman handling large objects; it’s from an unexpected diagnosis that could’ve claimed her life. Instead, she’s claiming it.
In July of 2015, Mindy noticed partial hearing loss in her right ear. Training at DMH’s Specific Performance Enhancement Center (SPEC) for multiple strongman/powerlifting competitions that summer and fall, Mindy’s concern was inner ear. “The overhead log press made me nervous about my ears and balance. I didn’t want to have a ninety-five pound log over my head and start getting dizzy. That’s what started the whole dang thing.”
At work, Mindy kept receiving calls with no one on the other end, or so she thought. Unintentionally hanging up on callers indicated her hearing had worsened from decreased to nonexistent.
An appointment with her doctor resulted in month-long treatment for fluid on the ear, which elicited no change. She was then referred to an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist at DMH.
A test at the ENT’s office confirmed no hearing in Mindy’s right ear. While there, an incision made in her eardrum (myringotomy) relieved pressure and restored her hearing immediately. Mindy was satisfied; her physician was not. He suspected he had treated a symptom, not the cause, and ordered an MRI.
In the meantime, Mindy was surprised by the intensity of sounds. “We were at a Mexican restaurant, and I couldn’t believe how loud hearing chips crunching inside my own head was.” Her excitement about renewed hearing dwarfed concerns about the upcoming scan.
The MRI coincided with another powerlifting event. “I thought I’d hop on the scanner and be out within the hour to make the competition.” The process took longer than usual.
The radiology technician repeatedly asked Mindy if she’d been having headaches. “I knew [the tech] well enough to know his poker face was failing bad.”
What’s going on here buddy, she wondered while lying on the table. After the scan, she made the competition in time for the second heat where squats, bench press, and deadlifts temporarily took her mind off the MRI experience.
At work the following week, the ENT specialist called Mindy personally. “He said to get Greg and meet him in his office in five minutes.” The quick turnaround time of results and urgency of the unscheduled follow-up appointment increased her concern.
MRI images displayed for the couple revealed a large tumor – 5 cm x 4 cm x 4 cm – growing behind Mindy’s right eye. “It was big as shit,” jokes Mindy. “I’m not a radiologist, but I could see that.”
Results of the scan led physicians to believe that the two most likely scenarios were a meningioma (usually benign) or a sarcoma, an aggressive cancer with short-term life expectancy. Because of the tumor’s presentation, cancer was a realistic possibility.
“That was the scariest moment,” says Mindy upon hearing an aggressive cancer was likely. A biopsy performed that same week, the day before Thanksgiving, would determine the diagnosis.
Thankful to spend the holiday with Greg’s side of the family, Mindy says, “I couldn’t face my parents. I watched them bury my sister not even a year ago. So now I’m going to tell them I have a tumor? I couldn’t watch them cry.” Time off through Thanksgiving weekend gave Mindy the chance to call key people in her life while processing her reality.
Looking closely at her reflection, Mindy could tell a slight change to her right eye, which protruded marginally more than usual. Other than the almost imperceptible appearance change and her initial hearing loss, she displayed no other symptoms of a brain tumor.
The biopsy concluded a grade one meningioma, a benign tumor. Instead of imminent death, she would face major brain surgery. It wouldn’t be an easy journey, but it was a journey and not a dead end.
Transferred to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Mindy was scheduled for a craniotomy. “They wanted to schedule me for an April surgery, and I said no. I didn’t want to miss the end of Ashley’s fifth grade school year. I apologized for officially becoming ‘that patient’. If we were going to do it, I wanted to do it on my terms and timeline.”
On June 28, 2016, Mindy underwent a fourteen-hour surgery. Part of her skull and right eye socket were removed along with the tumor. A titanium plate was inserted to cover the skull’s bone defect and titanium mesh replaced the eye socket.
Following surgery, Mindy was expected to be in the hospital for five to seven days post-op. Instead, she fell into a coma.
Mindy doesn’t remember her closest family members staying in constant rotation by her bedside in the intensive care unit. She doesn’t recall her daughter’s readings of incoming mail, including get well cards.
“About five to seven cards came a day. There were times when I was cognizant enough to fill in loops,” explains Mindy. “I would clench my hand, or move my foot or eyes to show that I heard, but I don’t remember any of it.” Despite small signs of progress, hospital staff monitored increased pressure in Mindy’s brain.
Early morning on July 4th, her neurologist had the end of life discussion with Greg. Pressure in Mindy’s brain had become life threatening. Greg was given two options: wait it out, or give consent for a second, immediate surgery to remove the plate that had been inserted not even a week prior. Greg opted for surgery.
Mindy made it through and slept on.
Update: Surviving a Brain Tumor and Coma: Mindy’s Story, is a three-part series.