Chris and Jim Wolter, of Freedom, Wisconsin, will remember May 21, 2019, as the day she regained her independence. It’s the day she had surgery that restored her mobility — and her quality of life.
Immediate Treatment Needed for Meningioma
Chris knew something wasn’t right in the months leading up to the surgery. “I was starting to experience pain and weakness in my legs,” she said. “Within a few months, I was using a walker. Shortly thereafter, I was in a wheelchair. It all happened so quickly. I went from having total control of my life to depending on my family for my basic needs.”
An MRI revealed Chris had a meningioma, a tumor that forms on the layers of tissue that cover the brain and the spinal cord, which are called the meninges. Slow growing and generally benign, they occur twice as often in women than in men, which suggests a possible link to the female hormone progesterone. Approximately 400,000 people are diagnosed with a brain or spine tumor every year in the U.S.
In many instances, patients do not require immediate treatment, but that was not the case for Chris. The neurosurgeon she consulted in Appleton told her she needed surgery.
“He said it was a high-risk surgery due to the tumor’s location, my age and my weight,” Chris said. “He referred me to Froedtert Hospital, where I’d find the team of doctors I needed.”
Complicated Surgery to Remove Spinal Tumor
At Froedtert Hospital, the academic medical center of the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network, Chris saw Hesham Soliman, MD, neurosurgeon and MCW faculty member.
“Chris had a tumor pressing on her spinal cord, almost between her shoulder blades,” Dr. Soliman said. “It was tricky, but thankfully, we were able to get the tumor out with minimal manipulation of the spinal cord. Sometimes after these surgeries, patients experience a decline in spinal cord function because of the manipulation. But Chris’ condition steadily improved.”
After performing a laminectomy, in which bone is removed in order to access the spinal cord, Dr. Soliman opened the lining around the spinal cord to expose the tumor. During the procedure, the surgical team used ultrasound and an operative microscope to pinpoint the site and minimize manipulation of the spinal cord.
“The tumor was an egg-shaped structure, squishing the spinal cord off to the side,” Dr. Soliman said. “We gently removed the tumor from the spinal cord and the spine wall and were sure to cauterize any blood vessels that had been feeding it. After ensuring no tumor remained, we closed the location tightly because there is always a chance of a spinal fluid leak if the closure is not done precisely.”
“It was a complicated surgery, but she needed it,” Dr. Soliman said. “This surgery can have risks, but it ultimately gave Chris her mobility — and her life — back.”
Spine Surgery Brings Dramatic Improvements
As Chris is the first to admit, she almost didn’t go through with the surgery.
“On the day surgery was scheduled, Dr. Soliman and his team came to see me,” she said. “They started to tell me what was going to happen and I just panicked. In that moment, I felt like I just couldn’t do it. Dr. Soliman is so kind and compassionate. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It’s OK, come back and see me in a week.’ But he told me we didn’t have much time.”
Back home with her husband, Jim, Chris did some soul searching.
“I looked at myself and said, my gosh, is this what I want my life to look like, permanently in a wheelchair, unable to take care of myself?” she said. “Something just clicked and I knew I didn’t want my life to be like that.”
A week later, Chris returned to Froedtert Hospital for the surgery. She remembers the thrill she felt after surgery when she could wiggle her toes.
“I knew at that point Dr. Soliman had done his job and now I had to do mine,” she said. That included extensive inpatient physical therapy, followed by outpatient therapy in the Fox Valley area, closer to home.
“I remember standing at the parallel bars and my physical therapist asked if I could take a step,” she said. “I really concentrated and my steps were shaky, but I walked all the way to the end of those bars.”
Chris was told recovery could take as long as two years, but she experienced dramatic improvement by the one-year mark.
“I was able to walk and now I don’t need a wheelchair or even my walker,” she said. “I am a success story. And I am thankful every day.”
The Froedtert & MCW Neuroscience Institute is a leader in the diagnosis and treatment of complex disorders of the brain, spine and muscle systems. Call 414-777-7700 for an appointment or visit the Neuroscience Institute page for more information.