In the spring of 2008, seventeen-year old Buffalo, NY, native Megan Mahoney, a freshman member of Marist College’s women’s crew team, was preparing for the team’s spring training trip.
“The day before we left, we all had to go to this big meeting,” says Megan. “I was sitting with my teammates in the auditorium when all of a sudden everything got dim.” Teammates later told her “they saw my eyes roll back in my head and I just fainted.” When she came to, her teammates walked her down the hall to the school nurse’s office, where she fainted again.
An ambulance brought her to nearby Poughkeepsie Hospital where doctors ran tests, but could find nothing wrong. “They said I was fine, but when I stood up to go home, I fainted again. I fell right onto the floor in front of the doctor.” They checked her in for the night and performed a CT scan. The CT scan showed a mass in her brain.
“At that point they weren’t sure what it was,” says Megan. “But they told me I needed to see a neurologist and get an MRI.”
Megan cancelled her spring training trip and had an MRI. A Buffalo-based neurologist told Megan and her parents that the mass in her brain was likely a benign, fluid-filled tumor known as an Epidermoid Cyst.
An Epidermoid Cyst is a slow-growing, benign, fluid-filled tumor that is usually found on the skin. The treatment of the cyst will depend on its location. If it is not symptomatic, it can be left alone. While the cause of only about one percent of all brain tumors, an Epidermoid Cyst that forms abnormally in the brain during fetal development has the potential to disrupt vital function. The only treatment is complete surgical removal.
“I didn’t let it weigh me down,” Megan says. “I didn’t sulk around.” The former high school rower says, “I have been in sports all my life and the mindset is, even if you don’t think you can finish you have to finish. You don’t quit just cause things aren’t going well.”
Megan and her family began the search for a neurosurgeon. “My mom quit her job to research . . . the best [neurosurgeons] in the world and in the U.S.,” says Megan. Neurosurgeons at the biggest and best hospitals up and down the East Coast offered differing opinions. Some told Megan and her parents that the surgery was too risky, while others recommended immediate surgery.
In early April 2008, Megan and her parents met with Dr. Michael Sisti of Columbia University’s Department of Neurosurgery. “He was so approachable,” says Megan. “It was night and day from the others. He comes out and gets you himself [from the waiting room]. He takes that extra step. He has a great sense of humor and that helped. I immediately had a strong connection to Dr. Sisti.”
Dr. Sisti confirmed that the mass in Megan’s brain was an Epidermoid Cyst. “He said he didn’t recommend surgery as the risks were unnecessary,” says Megan. “He said I shouldn’t let it stop me from living my life. He gave me clearance to go back to school and rowing. I knew I was in the right hands with the right hospital.”
Megan went back to school and started rowing again. “I won a conference championship medal a month after seeing Dr. Sisti,” says Megan. “I finished the season and my classes and was fine until the fall of 2008 when I started to get really bad headaches. They were so bad they made me throw up.”
Another CT scan showed that the cyst had grown. Megan went home for Thanksgiving and had an MRI. “We sent the scans to Dr. Sisti,” says Megan. “He said that because the cyst had grown, it was now blocking the spinal fluid and it could be fatal.”
Dr. Sisti told Megan she was going to need surgery to remove the cyst and to stop all physical activity. “Being an athlete, that was hard for me. I had always worked out every day.”
Megan’s surgery was scheduled for the second week in December. “It was shocking that it was happening so fast,” says Megan. “It meant I had to take my exams early. I powered through my schoolwork. It helped distract me. I got my best GPA that semester–I work well under pressure.”
On December 12, 2008, Megan and her family arrived at Columbia Presbyterian at 4:00 am. The surgery took seven hours. “During the entire surgery they kept coming out to give my family updates,” says Megan.” Apparently, when they do the surgery they have to keep coating the brain with water to keep it hydrated so my parents said the surgeons were completely wet.”
Megan was in the hospital for just three days. “Dr. Sisti’s care and concern for my well-being did not end as soon as my surgery was over,” she says. “While I was recovering in both the ICU, as well as the regular wing, Dr. Sisti made it a point to check on me regularly.”
By mid-January, Dr. Sisti gave Megan the go ahead to start rowing again. Megan was back in school by the end of the month and she has been symptom-free ever since.
Megan is now in her second semester at Maurer School of Law at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. “I love it here. I had always wanted to go to law school,” says Megan. “My Grandpa, Dad, aunts and uncles are all lawyers. Before the surgery, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to become a lawyer. Now, here I am.”
Though law school keeps her busy, Megan is still active in athletics. “Sports will always be part of my life,” says Megan. “A year after surgery, I ran the Chicago Half marathon and this October I will be running the Chicago full marathon. Dr. Sisti absolutely saved my life, and thanks to his incredible surgical skills and resources, I’m living out the life that I’ve always imagined for myself, with no neurological complications.”