By Pat Ciarrocchi
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Five months ago, on Oct. 1, 2020, I began a wild ride I never imagined that I would be experiencing. These words are seared in my mind. “The neuro-radiologist who read your MRI thinks you have a brain tumor.”
How could that be?
The words made me shudder. I prayed, “Lead me.” Then, I called my husband, David.
CBS3 Legend Pat Ciarrocchi Tells Ukee Washington Her Most Personal Story Ever — Her Own Brain Surgery
I had gone to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to investigate a deficit in my hearing, especially in my left ear, where I wore an earpiece over the three decades of my television broadcasting career. Very loud tones had screeched in that ear. I figured that certainly had an effect. Or, so I thought.
Ironically, the state of my brain never crossed my mind. The MRI, that the otolaryngologist — in lay terms, an ENT — had ordered to help in a diagnosis, revealed that my auditory canals were healthy. But something else needed attention. The words, “thinks you have a brain tumor,” still takes my breath away.
Within the next five days, I had a neurosurgeon, a doctor who operates on the brain. In my lifetime, the only other surgical intervention I had was to remove my tonsils and adenoids. I was 7.
Very quickly, I was scheduled for a more detailed MRI. The surgeon needed more sequences, to get a good look in three dimensions. MRI Navigation technology would map out the location of the growth. The scans were read by a 40-member medical team of brain experts. It is the Penn “tumor board.” I was not privileged with special attention. I was assured I got the same “special attention” that every Penn neurosurgery patient receives.
The team, lead by MY neurosurgeon, Dr. Donald O’Rourke, agreed without one dissenting vote that I needed brain surgery. They had found a lesion, a growth, of undetermined origin in the right temporal lobe. It needed to come out. Until the tissue could be studied, the medical team did not know exactly what it was and whether it was poised to threaten my life. I had never stood at a crossroads like that before.
Dr. O’Rourke is a leading Penn Medicine neurosurgeon who serves as the John Templeton, Jr MD Professor in Neurosurgery. Over his career of more than three decades in the operating room, Dr. “O,” as his colleagues call him, humbly told me when my husband, David, and I asked, that he has done nearly 5,000 craniotomies, with most far more complicated than mine appeared. All but a tiny percentage of his cases were cancerous brain tumors. Could mine be in that 1% of benign growths?
His confidence gave us confidence that Dr. “O” certainly knew his way around the brain. Dr. “O” asked me if I was “emotionally ready” to have brain surgery. He assured me this surgery was not “urgently” needed. His experience gave him confidence that my life was not in imminent danger. I had a moment to breathe and think. It took me about that time to decide. Just a moment.
I believed that how this lesion in my brain was revealed to me through what the scientists called an “incidental” discovery, I should proceed. My faith led me to feel the discovery had been Providential. The surgery was proactive, a prudent choice, because it could have grown and caused real damage to my brain. I looked at David, my best counsel in all things. He asked me, “Honey, are you ready?” I nodded my head, and said, “Yes.” He said, “Me, too.”
Dr. O’Rourke had already looked ahead at his surgical schedule. “How does the morning of Thursday, Oct. 15 sound?” I took a deep breath. “OK, we have a date.” The administrative wheels of Penn Medicine immediately started churning. I felt I was in good, steady hands. Considering Dr. O’Rourke would be working inside my head in measurements as tiny as a millimeter, I knew “steady hands” were what I needed.
For me, the brain surgery was effortless. I only had to trust and lay there.
On Wednesday, Feb. 25, when Ukee Washington and I filmed the story of my surgery with Dr. O’Rourke, I saw the pictures from inside the operating room and inside my head for the first time.
Looking at the operating room, with “the patient” under anesthesia and her blonde hair tied up in a ponytail, I realized how critical trust is. The “patient” didn’t look like how I see myself, so it was easier to look more closely. The room was lined with monitors, connected to cameras that followed each of those millimeter-sized cuts. Dr. O’Rourke was to use a scalpel to cut the skin of the scalp to access the skull. He lifted a small square of skull and then, inside the brain – inside MY BRAIN – he used “micro-dissecting instruments and an operating microscope, using the MRI Navigation technology that had mapped the location of the growth.” That growth was about the size of a grape. In medical terms, it measured 35 millimeters by 22 millimeters.
Dr. “O” was at my head and next to him, the Chief Surgical Resident, holding my life with the other pair of hands at the table. I learned her name is Pat, too. More Divine Providence? Why not?
You often hear about knee replacements or broken ankles that need surgery to reset the bones, but brain surgery? It was exotic to my ear. The ear where I hear clearly.
I had been left with an incision several inches long in the shape of a question mark (ever an inquiring mind). The incision, closed with 35 staples, started above my right eyebrow and ended in front of my right ear. And yes, a sizable patch of my hair had to be shaved. It felt a bit, “punk rock.” Now, after nearly five months, my hair is growing back. These days, I’m grateful for all things.
Seeing the pictures of surgery made me realize beyond the shadow of a doubt, that THE SCIENCE made the decisions about moving forward to open a “window on my mind” much easier. My “surgical cure” with no other treatment necessary allows me to embrace my life with vigor.
Pathological studies of the lesion that had taken up residence in the right temporal lobe of the amygdala portion of my brain was NOT cancerous and does not have the cellular properties to grow back. In our interview, as he recounted the results of the microscopic examination of the cells from that lesion, Dr. “O” smiled broadly as he said, “This is extraordinarily rare in my work. I’m happy for both of us.”
I learned so much from this experience. Here is the important lesson. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. One part may be speaking on behalf of another part. Ask questions. The medical community of the Philadelphia region is rich with experts at teaching hospitals. Seek them out. Find answers that you can understand. And if you find a “Divine” hand leading you in a direction you had not anticipated, take it. Trust. It is still always your decision.
I also learned that the grape-sized lesion had NOTHING to do with my hearing deficit. That is still undiagnosed and may simply require a hearing aid. What? Yes, it may be time.
As St. Pope John Paul II said in his first homily as pope in 1978, “Be not afraid.” That “counsel” served me well. I know there is more to do WITH MY LIFE.
So, as we would say in our home, “E Viva! L’Chaim,” TO LIFE! More adventures await. For that, my heart and brain overflow with gratitude.
By Pat Ciarrocchi