Family has special reason to give thanks this year

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Thanksgiving will "take on a whole new meaning" this year for the family of Morgan Dysert, who just months ago thought they might have to face the unthinkable: A life without their beloved 19-year-old.

The scare of a lifetime began in late May, when Ms. Dysert experienced minor vision problems upon returning home to Bulger, Washington County, after her freshman year at the University of Minnesota.

The 2009 Fort Cherry High School graduate thought she might need glasses. She was physically fit and active in sports, including the university's novice rowing team.

She and her mother, Karen Dysert, who works as director of nursing for the trauma and surgical intensive care unit at Allegheny General Hospital, thought the vision problems were stress-related, maybe due to the pressure of final exams and the all-nighters.

"I had basically been awake because of energy drinks that whole week," Ms. Dysert recalled. "My eyes felt more and more tired. I realized it wasn't normal."

But she was wrong about needing glasses. Her diagnosis was terrifying: a brain tumor.

Mrs. Dysert was working at the hospital when she got the results of the brain scan, just four days after her daughter's 19th birthday on June 5.

"I was numb," she recalled. "I didn't know what to do."

The tumor was benign, but it had been growing for a long time, doctors told Ms. Dysert. It was large for a brain tumor, measuring about 3 centimeters.

A second opinion and consultation with neurosurgeon Khaled Aziz of AGH, who specializes in tumors and aneurysms, confirmed the findings.

Her tumor was a rare type, known as a trigeminal schwannoma, named for 19th century German histologist and physiologist Theodor Schwann.

Such tumors are typically benign and grow along the nerve between the brainstem and the cavernous sinus -- in an area known as "Meckel's cave" -- which controls eye movement, vision and facial sensations.

As they grow, trigeminal schwannomas eventually create pressure in the nerve, causing vision problems, facial numbness and similar symptoms, Dr. Aziz said. If caught in its earliest stages, such tumors can sometimes be reduced or eradicated using radiation without surgery.

But due to the large size of her tumor and the worsening symptoms -- including double vision and facial numbness -- Ms. Dysert would need surgery right away. She could have opted for radiation, but her young age meant she likely would need to continue radiation treatments, perhaps for a lifetime, Dr. Aziz said. He said trigeminal schwannoma patients typically are much older than Ms. Dysert, usually in their 40s or beyond.

The tumors usually are associated with a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis, but Dr. Aziz said testing showed Ms. Dysert didn't carry the gene.

The longterm effects of the surgery were daunting.

Along with bleeding, strokes, infections and other complications from brain surgery, all of which Mrs. Dysert was accustomed to seeing over the years in her patients, her daughter could have suffered worsening double vision for up to a year, altered eye orientation and other lasting effects.

Dr. Aziz, who sees about three trigeminal schwannoma patients a year, said Ms. Dysert might not be able to return to college for up to a year, while she was recovering.

But he and the Dysert family were optimistic. Mrs. Dysert said Dr. Aziz gave her reason to hope.

Two fortune cookies from a night out at a local Chinese restaurant also boosted her spirits. Her daughter's fortune read: "The best years of your life have not yet been lived."

Mrs. Dysert's said: "A solid challenge will bring forth your finest abilities."

She still carries the fortunes with her for inspiration.

Ms. Dysert underwent an eight-hour craniotomy performed by Dr. Aziz on July 13. Defying the doctor's highest hopes, she completely recovered her vision and facial sensations in less than one week and was able to return to the fall semester at the university.Mrs. Dysert credits Dr. Aziz, who also used a cosmetic technique that required a special incision and minimal shaving, leaving Ms. Dysert's long auburn locks in place.

Last year, Dr. Aziz used a new minimally invasive technique to successfully remove an intracranial aneurysm for Upper St. Clair police Cpl. Patrick Keally.

Ms. Dysert will continue to be monitored for the next few years, although Dr. Aziz doesn't expect the tumor to reoccur.

In the meantime, her family, including dad Russ and 15-year-old brother Zachary, plan to count their blessings on Thanksgiving.

"It couldn't be a more blessed Thanksgiving for us than it will be this year," Mrs. Dysert said.


Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 724-223-0156.


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