Pauline Spence remembers the headaches last fall. She doesn’t remember much after that.
“One of the girls at work said, ‘You’ve been having headaches for three days—go to the hospital,” said Spence, 65, who lived in Florida at the time.
Those headaches turned out to be brain cancer.
She got the news on Oct. 19, 2018.
“I’ve had breast cancer in the past,” said Spence, better known as Polly to most. “They found brain cancer. They said I had a 1-inch lesion in my brain and that it needed to come out.”
Spence’s youngest daughter, Carly DuVall, of Rockford, Michigan, set out immediately to help her.
“She got a referral to a brain surgeon that was well-known in Michigan,” Spence said.
That surgeon: Justin Singer, MD.
DuVall and her older sister, Jennifer Ison, of Kentucky, headed to Florida to pick up their mom and bring her to Spectrum Health for surgery.
The right connections
When the two sisters arrived in Florida, their mother’s mental state scared them.
“After talking with mom and seeing she was starting to get confused and losing strength in her left side, I called my husband and told him, ‘Your job tonight is to find us tickets to Grand Rapids tomorrow,’” Ison said.
Ison packed her mom’s stuff and the three of them headed for the airport first thing on that Oct. 24 morning.
“She couldn’t walk at this point,” Ison said. “She couldn’t really use the left side of her body. We had to have wheelchair assistance all the way through.”
They missed a connecting flight in Chicago and had to wait nearly six hours for the next flight to Grand Rapids.
“As we were walking up to the gate, I saw the plane pulling away,” Ison said. “I just about buckled. Here’s my mom who is highly confused and we have to try to explain to her why we’re not getting on the plane.”
When they finally landed in Grand Rapids, they headed immediately to the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital emergency room.
“We got there at 11 p.m. and they were fantastic,” Ison said. “They were checking her vision. She wasn’t seeing anything out of her left eye. They wanted to scan her brain. They did an MRI and CT.
“They checked her urine and found out she had a (urinary tract infection),” she said. “We met several people that night that were so on top of their game. I looked at my sister and said, ‘We made the right decision, I’m telling you that right now.’”
On Oct. 30, Dr. Singer performed brain surgery on Spence.
“He came in every day and met with her,” Ison said. “They took her mid-morning for surgery and said it would be three or three and a half hours. Two hours later we got the call—they came in and told us he was able to get the entire thing out.”
Preliminary tests on the tumor showed that the breast cancer Spence had been diagnosed with seven years prior had metastasized to the brain.
“That’s much better to deal with,” Ison said. “You don’t want brain cancer. You want breast cancer that moved.”
Dr. Singer declared the surgery a success.
“Her tumor was quite large and, because of its location and size, we performed a surgery to resect the tumor,” Dr. Singer said. “She did very well following the resection with complete removal of the tumor.”
Three days after surgery, Spence transferred to the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital for rehab.
“She was still really confused,” Ison said. “She thought people were in her house. But she did regain strength in her hand and her leg.”
Ison said therapists guided her mom to recovery.
“Thank God they did,” she said. “They really helped her get back to being more of herself in just a short time.”
Over time, Spence’s confusion subsided.
“She really came out of that,” Ison said. “I really was worried that she wouldn’t. We didn’t know if we were going to get mom back from this confusion. We are all very, very close.”
Spence moved in with her youngest daughter, DuVall, and her family in November.
Just three days into the New Year, Spence finished her final radiation treatment.
“She’s very glad about that,” DuVall said. “She still has some delays with fine motor and occupational type movements, but overall her physical strength and coordination has improved tremendously. She takes care of herself and is doing fine alone during the day.”
Spence said she’s grateful for the renewal of good health.
“It was a long process,” Spence said. “They brought me back with amazing results. I feel real good. I don’t feel any side effects. My vision has returned. I’m good.”
Spence said she especially enjoyed reuniting with her family, baking cookies and listening to music and watching movies together—ones with happy endings, just like her story.
“That’s all I wanted,” Spence said. “To be with my family.”