When Jodie Leitner went to a routine checkup in the fall of 2014, she told her doctor she had been having unusual headaches. “I had had sinus headaches in the past,” she says, “and these headaches were different.” So her doctor sent her for an MRI.
The MRI showed a mass in Jodie’s brain.
“It was extremely scary,” says Jodie. “I’m a mom, I have two kids and a husband, and all I could think about was my family.” But, she says, she met with Columbia neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Sisti, who had come highly recommended by a friend. “Dr. Sisti was fantastic. The way he was able to put me at ease was just unbelievable.”
Dr. Sisti was also able to give Jodie some relatively good news about the tumor. It was a small meningioma, and therefore very likely to be benign. Despite being located just behind the optic nerve, which is necessary for vision, the tumor did not affect Jodie’s vision. In fact, the tumor was probably not even the cause of Jodie’s headaches—it just happened to be found when the MRI was performed.
Dr. Sisti explained Jodie’s options. She could wait to see if the meningioma caused any symptoms, getting periodic MRI scans to make sure it wasn’t growing quickly. If it did cause symptoms or start to grow quickly, it could be removed. The other option was to go ahead and have the tumor removed, getting rid of it before it had a chance to cause any problems, but accepting the risks inherent in brain surgery.
It didn’t take Jodie long to decide which path was right for her. “Knowing the tumor was there was consuming my every day—every thought, every action,” she says. “I needed to get it out as soon as possible.”
Dr. Sisti referred Jodie to a surgeon uniquely qualified to take on her case: fellow Columbia neurosurgeon Dr. Marc Otten. Dr. Otten specializes in tumors located in the tricky underside of the brain, behind and below the eyes.
He uses small, specialized instruments to remove such tumors through a patient’s nose. This minimally invasive approach is called endoscopic endonasal surgery. “Dr. Sisti was positive this was the right fit, that Dr. Otten would be the perfect doctor for the job.”
Jodie agreed with Dr. Sisti that Dr. Otten was the right choice. “His calmness, his confidence, put me at ease. From the first time I met with him, I just felt so comfortable. I felt fully informed,” says Jodie. She had made her decision: “I was ready to schedule.”
So, early one morning in January, Jodie arrived at the hospital for surgery. “I was very anxious and very nervous,” she says. But “everyone was fantastic.” Three surgeons would be collaborating on the long and complex surgery, and all three came in to greet her while she was getting her IV and her testing.
Dr. Otten would be the main surgeon, the endoscopic endonasal specialist. Dr. Sisti and Dr. Rahmatullah W. Rahmati would be co-surgeons, bringing their expertise in tumor surgery and ear/nose/throat surgery, respectively.
By early afternoon, the surgery was over. As soon as Jodie woke up, Dr. Otten let her know it had been a complete success. He and his team had accessed and removed the entire tumor—none of it had to be left behind. Even better, the tumor was not expected to grow back; periodic MRI scans would confirm that it wasn’t.
Then the recovery began. Jodie remembers it progressing in a few distinct stages. “The first 24 hours after surgery were exhausting,” she says. “From what I understand, the longer you’re under anesthesia, the longer it takes to snap out of it afterward. And I had been out for five hours.”
By the next day, though, nurses were helping her up and out of bed. On the fourth day, she went home. And the sixth day brought a big relief: The “very uncomfortable” packing in her nose was removed.
“Really, once I got home, I did a little bit more each day. I was able to bounce back pretty quickly.” And she kept in touch with Dr. Otten throughout her recovery and beyond. “He’s been very responsive.”
Today, Jodie’s life is back to normal. She is running her household and staying involved with her daughters’ school.
And remember those headaches that set everything in motion? They’re still around; her meningioma removal did not affect them. But Jodie takes them in stride. “It’s maybe once a week, and nothing I can’t handle with an over-the-counter painkiller. With all the follow-up MRIs, we’re confident there’s no other tumor or anything like that going on.”
Jodie’s advice for other patients facing a similar situation: “Advocate for yourself. Ask questions.” And although it might not be for everyone, it helped her to research and read a lot. “I educated myself, so I could go to the doctors with specific questions,” she says. “And reading up on other people’s experiences with the same surgery helped put me at ease. I knew what I was going to go through, so I really didn’t have any surprises.”
And Jodie definitely feels she made the right choice with Dr. Otten. “From start to finish—which was an unbelievably emotional time for me—Dr. Otten did right every step of the way.” The Columbia neurosurgeons who collaborated on her care get Jodie’s highest recommendation. “Obviously, I hope I never have to go through this again. I hope nobody does. I just know that if I ever did, I would be in great hands.”