Not long ago, Bethany was happily preparing for the first birthday of her son, John. Like any new mom, she was enjoying the process of ordering a frosted cake decorated with space aliens and hanging decorations around the Holden, Mass. home she shares with her husband, Matt, of eight years.
The last year, however, has been anything but typical for the 31-year-old. Bethany's son was born three months premature with underdeveloped lungs. While recovering from the complicated birth, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent a successful, state-of-the-art, minimally invasive brain surgery to remove it.
Today, both she and John are healthy and thriving, and Bethany and Matt couldn't be more grateful for every day together. "This was undoubtedly the most challenging year of our entire lives," Bethany reflects. "I want to help other people by sharing my story."
It was the start of the 2018-19 school year, and Bethany, a middle school health teacher, was excitedly preparing to return to her classroom. Until then, Bethany enjoyed a complication-free pregnancy with John, who was due around Thanksgiving.
While getting dressed for a teachers orientation meeting, she noticed severe swelling in her ankles. She was hospitalized with a dangerous form of preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure. Three days later, John was born by an emergency Cesarean section at 27 weeks, weighing just 2.4 lbs.
The severe preeclampsia damaged Bethany's retinas, causing temporary vision loss. Doctors feared she had suffered a stroke and ordered a series of scans. But those MRIs indicated something completely unexpected and unrelated to her pregnancy complications: a brain mass.
Bethany and Matt were in shock. Their premature son was already facing an extended stay in the NICU. The many unanswered questions after their visit to a local hospital left them feeling frightened and devastated.
"Our lives were flipped upside down," Bethany says. "I didn't know if I was going to make it."
The family elected to seek a second opinion from the Department of Neurosurgery at Brigham Health in Boston, which has a world-renowned reputation for leadership in minimally invasive neurosurgery.
"We talked about it and decided we need the best of the best," she says. "It was a terrifying time, I was scared for my life. I had just had this beautiful baby, [I was thinking] will I make it?"
The family sought out Omar Arnaout, MD, an experienced neurosurgeon who had diagnosed Bethany with a rare type of brain tumor called a glioma. Dr. Arnaout's confidence and clear treatment plan reassured Bethany that she was at the right place.
"The only thing worse than being told you have a brain tumor is being told you have an inoperable brain tumor," he says. "There are options, and we are developing new treatments all the time. There is value in getting a second opinion."
"I felt like I was in very good hands," Bethany says. "Dr. Arnaout was all about getting me home for my son."
In February, 2019, Dr. Arnaout used an innovative "keyhole" technique, along with an intraoperative MRI that was pioneered at the Brigham, to remove Bethany's tumor. The outcome: She was home in just two days, with an incision an inch long.
Because caring for infant John was still an intense around-the-clock task, Bethany was overjoyed to learn her surgery was so successful—and that neither follow-up chemotherapy nor radiation would be necessary.
"We had amazing care and then we were given the time to be a family, healthy and together," she says.
Dr. Arnaout recalls immediately connecting with Bethany and Matt when they sought out his advice. At the time, he was a new father himself and keenly understood the stress they were under.
"We try to treat people like family," he says of the Brigham Health care team. "When we make decisions together, I think, 'What would you want for your family?'"
Developing trust with patients is the key. "The person across from me is going to trust me with their brain," Dr. Arnaout says. "The relationship we have is hugely important."
Brigham Health can offer a team approach with a unique set of neurosurgical skills, technology, and techniques that don't exist at many other facilities in the world.
"The most common thing I hear after minimally invasive brain surgery is, 'That was not as bad as I thought it would be,'" he says. "I am always happy to hear that and 80% of my patients can go home the next day."
Bethany's husband served as her "rock" throughout this challenging ordeal, and he recalls how confident he felt in the Brigham Health team during a frightening and tumultuous time.
"I felt like we had the Tom Brady of neurosurgeons," says Matt, 31, a plumber, who met his wife when they were both students at Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School. "The team helped me feel connected the whole time. A lot of places just push the spouse to the side; they didn't."
Sharing their harrowing experience has become something of a family mission, say Bethany and Matt. Giving hope to other patients and enjoying each day as it comes is their new focus. John is almost walking, and Bethany returned to teaching this fall.
"We are so happy to be watching John grow up. We are grateful for everyone who was there for us. Life is such a gift."