Brain cancer

Confident, caring neurosurgeon eased Danita’s worries

Danita Doyle smiling outdoors in a blue sweater.

Danita Doyle, a spunky, 75-year-old woman from Mazomanie, Wis., has a way of getting straight to the point.

Facing the prospect of having surgery to remove a tumor in the protective lining of her brain, Danita put it this way:

“Nobody likes to hear the words ‘surgery’ and ‘brain’ in the same sentence,” she said.

Danita’s UW Health neurologist, Dr. Ali Zandieh, referred her to neurosurgery after Danita complained of persistent severe headaches. An MRI revealed recent growth of a benign tumor that had been dormant for 13 years. Danita soon met with Dr. Robert Dempsey, who chairs the Department of Neurological Surgery at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

“The first thing Dr. Dempsey said to me after reviewing my scans was, ‘How do you feel about this news?” Danita said. “In an instant, his concern about my feelings relieved my worries. His compassion turned my nervousness into confidence. I wanted him to take the tumor out yesterday.”

Dr. Dempsey, who has received numerous awards for his commitment to mentoring future neurosurgeons and humanitarian service, said it is essential for patients like Danita to not only feel comfortable but also fully engaged in their care.

Surgeon should be empathetic as well as technically skilled

“Understanding the patient’s feelings is as important as being a skilled technician,” Dr. Dempsey said. “My patients tend to do well when they participate in their care. I have found this approach far superior to letting a patient passively have something done to them. I consistently emphasize the importance of compassion and patient engagement in my teaching role with our trainees.”

Dr. Dempsey’s quiet confidence and palpable love for his profession was quite evident to Danita.

“He was so calm and relaxed, which made me feel calm and relaxed,” Danita said. “He went over the plan five times just to be sure I understood everything. Even on the operating table just before surgery, he took the time to go over the plan one more time.”

Denise Brost, Dr. Dempsey’s nurse practitioner, said although Danita’s tumor was unlikely to show cancer, its increase in size heightened the importance of removing it.

“Within the realm of neurosurgery, Danita’s diagnosis did not appear to be worrisome, but she still had to go through brain surgery so we could take the tumor out, biopsy it and verify that it was benign,” Brost said.

A mother of three and grandmother of four — a fifth grandchild passed away in 2021 — Danita recalls seeing Dr. Dempsey for the first time after waking up from surgery.

“His first words were, ‘We got it all ... every last cell,’” Danita said. “That was huge and felt like a big weight off my back.”

Over the next six days, occupational and physical therapists helped Danita re-learn daily functions such as dressing herself, showering and walking.

“They helped me learn how to put my socks on and tie my shoes without bending over, which is important when you’re recovering from brain surgery,” Danita said.

Now six months past surgery, Danita is back to enjoying life with her husband Rob and their extended family.

Telling her story, Danita said, might provide comfort for others facing the same situation. She also wants Dr. Dempsey and his team of nurses and therapists to know that their commitment to compassionate care is recognized and appreciated.

“I sing UW Health’s praises all the time,” Danita said. “It’s not easy to come to work and put on a smile for every patient all day long. When you see the camaraderie and hear the laughter from people who care for you, it’s very refreshing. They are nothing short of 100 percent. I think I lucked out.”