If life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, 20-year-old Josie Gotz has already known the true definition of life many times over.
While employed as a certified nursing assistant at a local rehabilitation facility, Josie’s function on her right side started to disappear little by little.
She had just turned 19 and finished her first year at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wis. She first noticed weakness in her hand. Sometimes it would tingle; other times it would feel numb. Later, her foot started to drag; she could not pick it up when she walked. Her toes would drop and she felt at any time that she might stumble. Josie also began losing vision in her right eye.
Within a few weeks, Josie’s life – and that of her family – was turned upside down by a devastating diagnosis. Josie had a brain tumor.
First, it was described as the size of a pea. Further analysis revealed that it might be the size of a golf ball. Finally, Josie was told it was almost as large as a tennis ball.
“When you hear 'tennis ball,' " said Josie's mother, Sarah Gotz, "you know it’s bad."
And when you also hear the word "inoperable," as the Gotz family did at a local hospital, life becomes incredibly dark in a hurry.
“I just kind of broke down," Josie said. "I was in shock and didn’t really know what to do or say."
News kept getting worse
No matter where the Gotz family went for answers, the news seemed to just get worse.
"It's an inoperable tumor."
"She could have chemotherapy and radiation, but the prognosis is poor."
"She will lose her vision, speech and hearing."
Despite this very bleak outlook, the Gotzes refused to give up.
"We had to keep looking, because we just would not accept 'inoperable,' " Sarah said.
Fortunately, a ray of hope was waiting in Madison, Wis. – a 4½-hour drive from the Gotzes' hometown of Park Falls in the northern part of the state.
UW Health neurosurgeon offers hope
One of Sarah's co-workers strongly suggested getting a second opinion and happened to know about UW Health neurosurgeon Mustafa Baskaya, MD. The Gotzes wasted no time before they contacted him at University Hospital in Madison.
Knowing the urgency of Josie’s situation, Dr. Baskaya and his nurse practitioner, Letty Geanon, NP, cleared time on the calendar to see Josie a few days later.
Dr. Baskaya made the long drive worthwhile by offering Josie and her family something that had eluded them for months: Hope.
“I can operate on you,” Dr. Baskaya told Josie, "but I want you to know up front there will be consequences that will limit your hand and foot function, especially for the first year."
Consequences or not, Josie and Sarah immediately burst into tears of joy. Dr. Baskaya, as he does for many patients who come feeling hopeless, offered the Gotzes the first piece of good news since Josie got sick.
“We knew Josie would not get back to 100 percent," Sarah said, "but surgery with Dr. Baskaya was her only chance for something reasonably close to a normal life."
Surgery performed in two stages
Ten days later, Josie was taken to the operating room. There, Dr. Baskaya and his team worked for 14 hours to cut out her 4.4-centimeter tumor, known as a thalamic astrocytoma – meaning it was in the brain's supportive tissues. As grade II, Josie's tumor is considered low-grade on a severity scale of I to IV.
“Sitting in the waiting area that day was not easy when as a mom, you want to know it all," Sarah said. "Thankfully we had pagers that sent us short messages like ‘Surgery started,’ or ‘In surgery - doing well.’ Finally, Dr. Baskaya came out and told us he removed as much of Josie’s tumor as he could without risking further damage and would perform a second surgery a month later to go after the remaining tumor."
Josie was a shell of her former self in those first days after surgery. In addition to temporarily losing half her vision and all of her hearing in one ear, she couldn’t talk at first. When she started speaking a few days later, she sounded like a 3-year-old child. It would take two weeks of inpatient rehabilitation followed by months of occupational and physical therapy before she began sounding like the young woman she was.
Josie starts coming back
Eight months later, after shedding her leg and foot braces, a wheelchair and a cane, Josie is regaining movement in her right hand. Physically, she is about 75 percent of the way back, and completely back to her old self mentally. For Josie’s safety, Dr. Baskaya had to leave a very small piece of the tumor, but the hope is that Josie will enjoy a long, happy life before any chance of recurrence.
"You need to plan for a long, long future," Dr. Baskaya told Josie at one of her recent appointments.
For now, Josie’s calendar is filled with doctor appointments, PT and OT sessions – and enjoying the miracle of life Dr. Baskaya gave her.
A few of Josie’s friends might have dropped off the radar, but most have been extremely supportive through thick and thin.
"They kept me sane," Josie says.
Josie might not be the same as before, but she and her family can't overstate how grateful they are that she is alive and getting stronger each day.
“One of the things we love about Dr. Baskaya is that he never said everything would be just fine," Sarah said. “He didn’t raise our expectations, but he gave Josie life and our family hope when we didn’t think either were possible.”