To Smile Again: How Brain Surgery Changed My Life

November 11, 2019 4:00 PM

On air host, Melissa Smith, shares how far she’s come since being diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma and how the condition has since shaped her life.

Melissa with her husband
Melissa with her husband Phil at their home. Credit: Beth Price Photography

This story was originally published in Grand Traverse Woman magazine.

We all have those moments that force us to change how we perceive the world—our crutches, our brick walls. For me, it was a health issue that I put on the back burner for a few years, hoping it would go away. It crept up in my life this past year, and it changed my world in more ways than I would ever realize.

Last February, I had brain surgery at the University of Michigan to remove a tumor called an acoustic neuroma. It was growing on the hearing, facial and balance nerves on my right side, near the base of my brain. It’s something I’m still processing and trying to see in a positive light. For a very long time I was livid, in denial and questioning why it was happening.

The diagnosis

I was diagnosed with the acoustic neuroma back in 2010. My primary care doctor sent me for an MRI because of chronic migraines, and the scan picked up the acoustic neuroma as a small speck, about the size of the tip of a pen.

I wasn’t having any symptoms. In fact, I was told the migraines were probably not even from the tumor. One doctor told me these types of tumors are slow growing and surgery may do more damage, so watching and waiting might be best.

During the years that followed, I went for an MRI once a year, and they always showed little to no growth. Feeling optimistic and maybe even in denial, I eventually stopped going for the follow-ups. I honestly thought if I pretended it wasn't there, the acoustic neuroma would go away.

Divine intervention

It wasn't until August 2017 that I scheduled an appointment with my ear, nose and throat doctor for what seemed like laryngitis. Looking back, I feel it was an office visit I was led to. It was divine intervention.

At the appointment, my ENT doctor asked if I had been completing my yearly MRIs. I smiled.

“Oh, I’m fine!” I joked. “I stopped going for those!”

He didn’t find it funny and immediately scheduled an appointment for me.

A week later, my ENT called with the results. I was sitting with my now-husband, Phil, at our kitchen table talking about our upcoming wedding. We were in the thick of planning, less than a year out, and like any soon bride-to-be, I was ecstatic about what was ahead. When I answered the phone, it was as though my body was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of intuition, preparing me for what I was about to hear.

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The MRI showed the acoustic neuroma had grown significantly to about 14 to 16 millimeters. It was nudging up against the base of my brain. He said it needed to come out as soon as possible. If it stayed, it could cause irreversible damage. My smile from the afternoon of wedding planning slowly fell, my joy emptying. My eyes filled with tears. I got up and walked away from the kitchen table.

My doctor asked if I was having any balance issues. “No,” I replied. I told him that I ride my bike on a regular basis without any problems. He told me the tumor was considered medium to large, and he was shocked I wasn’t having symptoms. A million thoughts raced through my mind, from how this would impact my job as a news anchor, to my wedding, to life in general.

More than anything, I was angry. Phil had followed me, and when I turned and saw him, I started to sob. I wanted to be strong, but I lost it. I told him the news, and I think we were both in shock. I’ll never forget that day.

Throughout this time, I kept thinking, "I don't have time for this.” That thought played over and over like a broken record in my mind, and looking back, it was naïve to think I was invincible.

The surgery

I researched extensively over the next several weeks and met with people who had gone through surgery for an acoustic neuroma. I scheduled consultations with Dr. Byron Gregory Thompson, a neurosurgeon, and Dr. Hussam El-Kashlan, a head and neck surgeon, both at the University of Michigan. They became my “dream team.”

Melissa after surgery
Courtesy of the author

During the pre-surgery visits, I underwent hearing, balance and facial nerve tests. All of them came back normal, but I was told my balance on the right side was weakened from the tumor. I was also told that after surgery I could experience dizziness and may have to learn to regain my balance. There was also a chance I would lose hearing on my right side and have facial paralysis.

“What if I can’t walk down the aisle for my wedding?” I thought. “What if I don’t look like myself or can’t hear when I recite my vows? If I have kids one day, will I be able to hear them?” For months, these thoughts consumed me. Then finally, on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, I was wheeled in for surgery.

The day of surgery felt like a dream. Since the University of Michigan is a teaching hospital, the operating room looked like a classroom with medical students sitting in. The anesthesiologist tried to make me feel relaxed. As he placed an oxygen mask on my face, he asked me where I would like to go.

I must have looked confused because he smiled and asked again, "Where would you like to go during your surgery, while you're sleeping?"

I finally understood. "I want to go to my favorite beach on Lake Michigan. It's called Port Oneida," I said.

He shouted to the whole surgical room I was going to Lake Michigan and they all cheered and started clapping. It gave me a sense of comfort. One of my surgeons stood over me, smiling. He looked down and asked if there was anything else.

“Yes. I just want to come out of this as the same Melissa,” I said.

“We’re going to try our very best,” he replied.

Slowly, the oxygen in my mask began to smell like chemicals. I looked up one last time.

"God, please help me," I whispered. A tear fell down my right cheek. Then, I closed my eyes and slept.

The recovery

It seemed like all of five minutes had gone by when I opened my eyes in ICU. I could feel a heavy bandage wrapped around my head and could barely move. The room seemed blurry. In front of me, I saw my family and Phil smiling.

I grabbed for Phil’s hand and then grabbed for my mom too. She smiled. She walked over and told me I was in surgery for 13 hours. The surgeons got the entire tumor, she said.

I couldn’t format sentences and had a hard time putting simple words together. My neurosurgeon, Dr. Thompson, came into the room and asked me to smile as big as I could.

He explained my smile was perfectly symmetrical, but in the next 24 hours, the irritation from surgery could change that. He said it would eventually come back over time. The facial nerve had been so tightly bound around the tumor, it took five hours to peel it off without ripping the nerve. Talk about incredible humans.

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I was away from work for about two and a half months learning how to strengthen my balance with physical therapy. For about two solid months, my right side of my face was completely paralyzed. I couldn't close my right eye for several weeks, couldn’t chew or taste food on my right side, and I couldn't tear up on that side. I also had a constant loud buzzing in my ear.

But, the worst part was that I couldn't fully smile. More than anything, I just wanted to smile again. I LOVE to smile. It lights up my soul. I felt like I was stuck in someone else's body. But, I knew I had to be patient and let my body heal.

Once I returned to work in April and life seemed to return to a new normal, I debated canceling our upcoming wedding. In my heart, though, I knew I couldn’t let the tumor get in the way of life. So, we went on as planned. Phil and I were married on July 14, just five months after my surgery. It was the best day of my life. When I walked down the aisle with both of my parents, I felt strong. My balance didn’t let me down, and my smile didn’t let me down either. I couldn't stop smiling!

Today

I still get angry about what happened—angry at my body, angry at God. There are days I’d rather not smile in front of thousands of people watching the news, in fear of them noticing something not quite 100%.

On those frustrating days, Phil looks me straight in the eye and always says with a smile, “Look how far you’ve come.”

Melissa at home
Smith, enjoying time at home with her three beloved cats. Credit: Beth Price Photography

It’s a simple reminder. The truth is, we all have hurdles, and it’s never easy; it’s how we perceive our challenges that changes everything. Brain surgery forced me to accept that some things are out of my control. I can’t act like my surgery never happened. I’m alive, and I’m doing the best I can. We all have something that’s challenging.

I also remind myself that I’m extremely blessed for the miracle surgeons at the University of Michigan. They saved me from something that could have caused irreversible damage or worse to my body. I’ve learned how sensitive, yet resilient and brilliant, the human body is.

Sure, my hearing isn’t as strong as it used to be, my facial nerve is still healing and sometimes my balance likes to test me. But I know that I’m capable of overcoming more than I realize. We all are.

On Feb. 12, as I struggled to lift my bandaged head in ICU and format sentences, I never thought I would smile with my mom during my wedding rehearsal, that I would dance with my dad during my reception, or laugh with Phil while we celebrated our wedding. But I did all of that.

Sometimes, things happen in this universe that take our smiles away. But if we see the world differently, we can learn how to get our smiles back. We can use them to help inspire others, and maybe, use them to help others smile again, too.