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Not long after turning 60, Becky Crikelair noticed a change in her usually vibrant, outgoing personality.
“I have always been a very social person,” said Becky, who lives in Neenah, Wis. “But a few years ago, I started losing interest in seeing people, doing things and going places. I struggled to concentrate and lost interest in keeping the house up. My husband, Frank, noticed these changes before I did. He encouraged me not to sit around and start moving more than I was.”
Over time, Becky started losing sight in her left eye. She remembers not being able to see a golf ball on the fairway once it landed after teeing off.
“Becky, the ball is right there,” her friend would say while pointing to it.
Losing vision in one eye was the first major sign of trouble, but Becky wrote it off, wishfully, as a sign of cataracts.
Her vision kept declining, but after nothing unusual turned up in an eye exam, Becky’s ophthalmologist in nearby Appleton suggested that she get an MRI.
The news was devastating. Becky had a large brain tumor, one that had probably been growing for at least 10 years. Her ophthalmologist referred her to UW Health in Madison, where she and Frank met with Dr. Azam Ahmed, a highly reputed neurosurgeon who specializes in complex skull base tumors.
“Dr. Ahmed showed me the image of my large brain tumor on the screen and my world was turned upside down,” Becky said. “You are never prepared for something like this.”
In his calm but confident way, Dr. Ahmed told Becky she had a benign meningioma, which is a tumor that originates in the lining of the brain. Fortunately, it had not spread to other parts of her body.
‘I was sent to the right place’
“It was overwhelming and scary, but Dr. Ahmed set my mind at ease,” said Becky, who was 65 at the time. “There was no panic, and I just knew I had been sent to the right place.”
By the time she arrived in Madison for surgery in March 2022, about 80% of Becky’s vision in her left eye was gone as a result of the tumor pushing on her optic nerve. Dr. Ahmed hoped Becky’s vision would not get any worse, but he cautioned her from expecting any improvement following surgery. In retrospect, the tumor also caused Becky to lose her sense of smell about 10 years earlier. Unfortunately, nothing could be done to reverse that.
Becky and Frank drove to University Hospital on March 29. Her surgery began at 2 p.m. and was scheduled to last 4½ hours. Frank nervously waited in the hospital for periodic telephone updates from Dr. Ahmed’s team.
Dr. Ahmed began by cutting an incision in Becky’s skull that resembled an upside-down candy cane. To access the tumor, he temporarily removed a large piece of bone that he would put back in place once the tumor was removed.
The tumor was pushing on several surrounding structures, including both of Becky’s carotid arteries, both optic nerves and the pituitary gland, among others. Extreme care would be required to stealthily extract all of the tumor without putting Becky’s physical or mental functions at risk.
“It’s kind of like walking a tightrope with danger lurking on either side if you fall off,” Dr. Ahmed said, giving Becky’s surgery an “8” on a scale of complexity from zero to 10. “Fortunately, we see this kind of situation regularly and have an experienced team that knows how to navigate cases like Becky’s.”
Frank became more anxious as the hours dragged on. The nurses suggested that Frank go back to his nearby hotel room, not that he was going to get much sleep. Fortunately, Dr. Ahmed’s team assured Frank that the unexpected length of the operation was not a sign of trouble.
Twelve hours after he kissed Becky goodbye before surgery, Frank finally got the call he was hoping for. It was 2 a.m., and Dr. Ahmed was on the line.
Two miraculous outcomes
“I told Frank that we achieved gross total resection, or complete removal of the tumor, which we confirmed with an MRI later that day,” Dr. Ahmed said.
It was the best possible outcome, yet Becky still had another miracle moment awaiting her just two days later.
“My daughter came to visit me,” Becky said. “I remember pulling my eyelids apart with my fingers and my vision was totally back, 100 percent!”
Despite cautioning Becky not to expect improvement in her sight, Dr. Ahmed said some patients like Becky are lucky to regain function of their optic nerve once the compression from the surrounding tumor is removed.
After seven days in the hospital, Becky came home to begin her long recovery that started with physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.
“Speech therapy was the hardest,” Becky said. “I remember they would say 15 words out loud and I had to repeat as many as I could back to them. I passed this test the first time, which was really encouraging.”
For six weeks after Becky came home, Frank slept on a camping pad on the floor next to his wife’s bed.
“Every time I woke up to use the bathroom, he’d jump up and say, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?' " Becky said.
By October 2022, six months after surgery, Becky felt completely recovered. She also was able to stop her diabetes medication, which Becky took to control high blood sugar that has since returned to a normal level.
Becky feels better than she has in years
Now 66, Becky says she feels better than she has in years. She exercises daily and enjoys neighborhood walks, playing pickleball and a weekly game of golf, which is always more fun when you can see the ball.
“Between the dear Lord and Dr. Ahmed, they not only saved my life but gave me a second lease on life,” Becky said.
In April 2023, one year after surgery, Becky hosted a party to thank 45 of her friends and family members for the love and support they provided throughout her long ordeal.
“It was everything I hoped it would be,” Becky said. “A friend gave me a beautiful glass plate with an inscription that perfectly captures my experience.”
It says: Just when the caterpillar thought it was all over, he became a butterfly.