Sherry Ortman has lived an interesting life. A self-described “jock,” she played softball during high school and college in Illinois. As a young woman, she moved to Washington state to earn her master’s degree at Central Washington University, and for years after she retired at 52 from her career as a teacher, coach and principal, Sherry traveled between Arizona and Washington and back, and around the western states, in a 30-foot motor home.
Sherry is 81 now. Last October, at her home in Grapeview, she took a hard fall. “I knew I should turn on the light before I got up, but I didn’t,” Sherry says. “I hit my face pretty hard on the side of the bed.”
As it turned out, Sherry’s broken nose was the least worrisome diagnosis in store. Sherry was taken to the emergency room, where a CT was ordered to determine the extent of her injury. When the images came back, her doctors were stunned. Sherry had an eight-centimeter tumor growing from her dura, which is the covering of the brain and pushing on her brain.
Sherry was referred to neurosurgeon Sheila Smitherman, MD, Providence Medical Group, for further diagnosis and treatment. Dr. Smitherman identified the tumor as a meningioma.
Meningiomas are slow-growing and are not usually cancerous, but when located near the brain, they often do cause neurological problems because of the pressure they exert on underlying tissue. This pressure can cause cognitive impairment, and although she didn’t fully realize it, Sherry was experiencing this effect.
“They say I was not making a lot of sense at this time,” Sherry says. Her brother, who was supporting Sherry through the treatment, said she had been showing signs of dementia. Dr. Smitherman says that on the day of their first visit, Sherry seemed completely disinterested.
“She wasn’t able to tell me about her fall, and she didn’t remember going to the ER,” Dr. Smitherman says. “I showed her the images of her tumor and tried to engage her in discussion about her treatment, but she was indifferent – her mood was flat, and she was not interactive.”
Dr. Smitherman says that since meningiomas tend to grow very slowly, their effect on a person’s cognitive function may not be readily apparent. “It can be hard for people around you to really tell that something unusual is going on. A cognitive decline can sometimes just seem like normal aging,” she says.
Surgery to remove the mass was scheduled, and Sherry’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew arranged for her post-op stay at a rehab facility. On surgery day, Sherry remembers arriving at the hospital, being prepared for the procedure, and then – nothing. “I asked the nurse when they were coming to get me to take me into surgery, and they told me it was over!” she says. “I was flabbergasted. It was all done, and I felt not one bit of pain.”
But the best surprise came later.
At their follow-up visit, Dr. Smitherman says Sherry didn’t even look like the same person. There was a profound difference, cognitively. “This was one of the more dramatic changes I’ve seen as a neurosurgeon,” she says. “It was a total 180.”
Instead of going to the rehab facility as planned, Sherry was able to go directly back to the assisted living facility where she’d moved before surgery. She used a walker or cane for a few weeks while she regained her walking stability, but soon she was able to put them away.
Dr. Smitherman says outcomes like Sherry’s are one reason she keeps faith in her profession. When she had consulted with Sherry’s family before surgery, she was cautiously optimistic. “Meningiomas in this location are removable, and if that is done, the pressure on the brain is relieved. Relieving that pressure can cause dramatic changes,” Dr. Smitherman says.
“Sherry’s experience just goes to show that it’s worth investigating when a loved one’s cognitive function seems to be in decline. Her case shines a light on the resilience of the human mind and its ability to redevelop capacity. Cognitively, physically – she’s come so far.”
After her fall, Sherry’s brother sold her car. “Because he assumed I’d be incapacitated, he didn’t think I’d be able to use it,” Sherry says. But her church and most of her friends are 22 miles away in Belfair, and she’s a people person. Sherry says she needs more stimulation than she gets at her assisted living facility, so she bought another car – a 2015 Camry that “drives like a jewel” – and she’s been able to resume her active social life.
Today, Sherry says she’s feeling great and grateful.
“Because I’m so well put back together, I’m really enjoying my time right now,” Sherry says. “I really enjoy people, and I’m blessed that Dr. Smitherman got the job done for me.”
“I’ve got lots of living to do yet.”
Gratitude From a Loved One
After Sherry’s surgery, her brother wrote a letter of thanks about Dr. Smitherman. From his note:
“Before my sister’s brain tumor surgery, Dr. Smitherman called…and told us what she hoped to accomplish. We felt like she had all the time in the world to talk to us. The tumor was large, and she didn’t exaggerate the expected outcome. (My 80-year-old sister was showing signs of dementia, and we hoped some of that would go away.) After the surgery, she was to go to a rehab facility for two to three weeks. Well, the procedure was so successful, my sister went straight back to her assisted living facility after a week in St. Peter. The result has been amazing. Gone is any sign of dementia and my sister is as sharp and full of energy as she was five or ten years ago. If there are angels here on earth, we think we discovered one in Dr. Smitherman.” – Gary Ortman