November 25, 2020

Illinois family braved the COVID-19 pandemic's early days to find lifesaving care at UW Health

Madison, Wis. — It's been said you can't believe everything you read on the internet, but one family from Northbrook, Ill., found something it could believe in.

On March 17, Sun Lim, a 64-year-old mother of three daughters, was diagnosed with grade 4 astrocytoma, also known as glioblastoma multiforme, a fast-growing brain tumor. Doctors at her local health system examined her, reviewed her brain images, took a biopsy and determined that surgery was not possible to remove the tumor.

Without the possibility of surgery - the first-line treatment for glioblastoma - treatment meant rounds of radiation therapy and chemotherapy without surgical resection, that carry significant side effects that could impact Lim’s quality of life significantly.

Angel Recht, eldest of Lim’s daughters, wasn’t satisfied. She felt there had to be another way.

So, she did what anyone might do today, she turned to the internet.

"I searched the internet for 'inoperable brain tumor' and found a story about a patient treated by a Dr. Mustafa K. Baskaya," Recht said.

There was just one problem – the world was in the midst of an intensifying global pandemic, and visitation at UW Health’s University Hospital was significantly reduced to protect patients and staff. 

Given the choice of radiation therapy and chemotherapy Recht, Lim and their family decided to try regardless of COVID-19. So, they called UW Health’s neurosurgery department office to inquire about a second opinion, and spoke with Letty Geanon, UW Health nurse practitioner, who works with Baskaya, a UW Health neurosurgeon and professor of neurological surgery at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

“She was very instrumental in expediting everything and getting our case prioritized with Dr. Baskaya,” Recht said.

Within a week after being diagnosed, they had a virtual meeting to discuss the possibility of surgery. After that two-hour meeting on a Saturday with Lim, and most of her family by her side, they contacted Baskaya the next day to go ahead with the surgery.

“We had to FaceTime with Sun’s family,” Baskaya said, and that was just the beginning of the journey to Madison from the northwest Chicago suburbs.

Lim’s brain images couldn’t be transferred electronically in a timely manner, so Recht rushed to the post office to have the compact disk with images sent overnight to Baskaya’s home. She was prepared to drive to Madison if she anticipated any delays in the disk arriving by the next day, Recht said.

Baskaya received the images the next day at his home, and went to his office to pull up them up on his computer. He was able to determine that surgery was indeed possible before that first call with Lim and her family.

On March 31, Lim’s surgery was scheduled, and two days later, she was admitted and Baskaya performed a successful surgery the following day, April 3.

Due to the visitor restrictions at University Hospital her family couldn’t be there to visit and talk with Lim. Baskaya’s team took over, including Geanon, who made phone calls, met with her family outside the hospital and helped Lim feel welcomed and safe with the pandemic raging around the Midwest.

"The team did a lot," Baskaya said. "She was alone; she's not from here."

The extra measure of compassion was evident to Lim and Recht.

"I felt very well taken care of by everyone and didn't have any feelings of worry while there," Lim said.

One particular gesture from her care team meant a lot in the time just after the surgery. Geanon sent a picture of Lim, arms raised during a routine check-up of her motor skills, from her hospital bed, and Baskaya himself came out of the hospital with Geanon to visit Recht and other family members and discuss Lim’s care.

“We continue to drive up here because we feel safe,” Recht said, at a recent follow-up appointment at University Hospital. “Otherwise, we would be doing telehealth visits.”

Now, seven months removed from surgery, Lim is doing well. The primary concern of surgery, and why her original care team in Chicago thought the tumor was inoperable, was the risk to her motor skills, like movement, but in this case in particular, speech.

"Prognosis is better than without surgery, and we have given her the best chance to beat the odds," Baskaya said. "She is not paralyzed and functionally 100 percent."

To date, brain scans taken by magnetic resonance imaging have revealed the tumor has not started growing back. If the tumor does return some day, Baskaya may consider additional surgery.

The surgery and radiation, along with Optune, a Tumor Treating Field (TTF) device, has given Lim better health, and her family the gift of time together.

So much so, after her recovery from surgery, Lim and her family have even road-tripped out-of-state together, and Lim takes two-mile walks with her husband daily.

“She’s tough, she’s a fighter,” Recht said, with her mother now one year from her first symptoms. “She is doing remarkably well.”