Giant football-sized tumor removed from woman’s head in risky surgery
22nd September 2020

When she was 64 years old, Lorenza De La Villa found a marble-sized bump on the back of her head.

It was a benign tumor, her doctors told her. And since it was small, and painless, and caused no harm to her thinking or vision, it was best to just keep an eye on it.

That was 25 years ago, and in the quarter-century that followed, the Teaneck, NJ, mother of ten — a Colombian immigrant and retired Brooklyn seamstress — lived her life, becoming first a grandmother, then a great-grandmother, then a widow.

Through all these changes, and through annual MRI scans and bi-annual neurology visits, the little bump stayed the same.

“El huevito,” she called it. The little egg.

That all changed in April — when, seemingly overnight, the marble became a golf ball.

With a pandemic raging, De La Villa’s family feared bringing their frail, now 89-year-old matriarch to a hospital. But tele-health sessions with her doctors offered little hope.

In-person visits were no better. The tumor — a suddenly aggressively-growing meningioma, benign in name only — was eroding away a large section of her skull and surging outward.

The family brought De La Villa to three hospitals in New Jersey, seeking second and third opinions, and the doctors all said the same thing.

Cutting off the tumor would sever who knew how many arteries; she’d surely bleed to death on the operating table.

In weeks, the tumor had gone from being too small to bother with to being too large to do anything about.

“It was growing by inches, almost every day,” her granddaughter, Michelle Tavares, 31, of Weehawken, recalled.

By May, it was the size of an orange, and by June, a cantaloupe. De La Villa no longer called it the little egg, Tavares remembered of her grandmother.

Now it was the big egg: “El huevote,” as she called it, with alarm.

In late June, the seventh doctor to examine De La Villa visibly recoiled. The tumor had swollen to the size of a football.

“Horrendous,” Tavares said he pronounced the large mass. “Take her home. She’s dying.”

De La Villa’s daughter, her doting, primary care-giver, gave in. She listened to the doctors. She took her mother home to die.

It was at this unfathomable low point, the family believes, that some divine intervention came into play.

Back in May, De La Villa’s daughter had told her mother’s story to a total stranger selling an attic fan on Craigslist.

Paul Hye, 73, of Chatham, remembers of the day when she showed up at his door to buy his fan — and happened to tell him about her mother and her giant tumor.

“I had said, ‘Oh, my God, I just saw this show on Netflix, and it blew me away,” Hye told The Post.

“I told her, you should check out ‘Lenox Hill,’ ” he said of the new documentary series, which follows the hospital staff as they care for patients — holding their hands, hearing them out, performing their surgeries.”

De La Villa’s daughter, who asked The Post not to use her name, had put the “Lenox Hill” series out of her mind, until an evening in late July as she and her then-bedridden mother tuned to a prayer channel on YouTube and the rosary together.

“I put my hand on her head,” the daughter remembered. “And I was praying, ‘This tumor, make it disappear.’”

Just then, the lights went out. The TV lost power, just for a few seconds, and when it came back on, “Netflix was there,” on the TV screen, she said.

“I had chills. I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is a sign.’ ”

She clicked on the Netflix logo, and found the show.

The series premiere showed the hospital’s two top brain surgeons, Neurosurgery Department Director Dr. David Langer, and Vice Chair John Boockvar, as they treated a police officer from Tennessee.

“Mitzie arrived with us after living with this tumor in her skull base and neck for about ten years,” Langer says in a voiceover seven minutes in.

“At the end of the day, no one near her was willing to operate on her,” the doctor continues. “It was just too difficult.

“Knowing she’s a mom to a daughter, has a family, a son who needs her, this is the major drive that made me ultimately decide to take the risk. And try to save her life.”

To De La Villa’s daughter, it was as if the doctor on her television screen was speaking directly to her and her mother. She knew immediately — this hospital was different.

“Seven minutes after I hit play,” she remembers, “I said, ‘This is the place.’ ”

Boockvar, Lenox Hill’s vice chair of neurosurgery, remembers the first time De La Villa was wheeled into an exam room at the hospital’s 77th Street building.

“She had this thing in a diaper,” he said of her tumor. “Literally, it was wrapped in a diaper because it was bleeding so much.”

‘At the end of the day, no one near her was willing to operate on her.’

Despite the daughter’s best efforts to care for her mother’s tumor, the delicate skin had developed ulcers — bed sores. The slightest pressure, and the sores would bleed, sometimes profusely.

“She was crying in pain,” Boockver said of De La Villa, his brow creasing at the memory. “We were afraid to take the diaper off,” he said.

“She basically wanted to die at that point. She had no quality of life. So, even with a 50 percent chance of her dying, why wouldn’t we do it?” he said of the surgery.

But first, to give De La Villa her best chance of surviving, Dr. Rafael Ortiz, the hospital’s chief of neuro-endovascular surgery, had to seal off as many of the multitude of arteries that fed the tumor as possible.

In a delicate procedure done the day before surgery, a catheter — a long, tiny tube — was snaked from an artery in her leg all the way up to her brain, steered by Ortiz, who watched its progress on a screen as he worked.

One by one, the catheter probed the arteries at the tumor’s base, each time injecting a squirt of dye so that its path could be seen and tracked on Ortiz’s screen, like roads on a map.

If the artery fed blood to the tumor only, he sealed it off; if it also fed blood to the brain, he let it alone.

“If we close an artery that goes to the brain, she will have a stroke,” he explained.

“We found multiple arteries that were supplying only the tumor, and we went ahead and closed them,” he said.

He used what he called “medical crazy glue,” to shut down some of the arteries; for others he used “embospheres,” tiny artery-blocking pieces of plastic.

“For some of the arteries, we used both,” he said.

The next day was surgery — removing the giant mass of blood vessels and tumor tissue, and doing it quickly, to further minimize the chance of life-threatening bleeding.

Ortiz’s procedure the day before had been downright dainty compared to the brisk, blunt-force attack needed to scoop out the mass, using surgical spoons and the surgeons’ gloved hands.

The procedure is like a medical relay race, with De La Villa’s beating heart as the stopwatch.

The work was done in rapid turns by Langer — the neurosurgery chair — along with Boockvar and a resident surgeon.

“One person’s taking out the mass, bit by bit, the other is achieving hemo-stasis — controlling the bleeding — using a bi-polar coagulation machine,” Boockvar said, describing an electrified, tweezer-like instrument.

It took two hours, from start to finish, including the placement of titanium mesh to cover the part of De La Villa’s skull where the tumor had eaten its way through.

“For someone in her age group, we don’t want a lot of bleeding — fortunately, because of Dr. Ortiz, it didn’t,” Boockvar said. “And we don’t want her to be under anesthesia very long.

“You get in, you work quickly, and then you get out of Dodge.”

Within hours of surgery — that very afternoon — De La Villa was lucid and talking, Boockvar said.

The next day, “She was smiling, lifting her head, talking, her cognition intact,” he said.

“She’s tough as nails,” he added with a smile.

De La Villa had her one-month followup visit at Lenox Hill on Monday.

“She healed like a nine-year-old,” Boockvar said, beaming to see her in a third-floor exam room.

What caused the small bump to suddenly grow — what prompted the cells inside to mutate and multiply so aggressively — remains a mystery.
“We don’t know what kicked it off,” he said, adding that even for a neurosurgeon, “This is a once in a lifetime event.”

“She’s walking now — with a walker, and two people on her sides,” the daughter told the doctors. “And now she talks. She can say her name.”
“It’s really an incredible result,” Langer said.

Taveras was there at the checkup too, joking with her grandmother.

“Remember the ‘big egg?’ ” she asked. “You would say, “El huevito? No! El huevote!”

De La Villa was doing so well — and with physical therapy, was expected to continue to improve — that Boockvar turned his attention to her daughter.

“You’re a hero, you know that, what you’re doing now, caring for her,” he told her.

“There are a lot of us,” the daughter answered, modestly, waving a hand toward her niece, Tavares.

“I tell you,” the daughter told the neurosurgeons before wheeling her mother out again. “God brought us to you guys.”

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