Liza Slavin - Making Strides for Brain Tumor Research

A personal campaign sponsored by Sydney Slavin

June 4, 2016

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My name is Liza Slavin, I am a 20 year old student-athlete at Washington College from Baltimore, MD. I have always been healthy, minus a few trips to the ER for a broken bone or two (I am very clumsy), I have played sports all of my life, and never had any major medical issues until Easter Sunday of 2015.

I spent the day at home with my family and was prepared to return to school that evening to finish my freshman year when I unexpectedly had my first seizure. My sister, Meredith, was dog sitting that weekend and asked if I wanted to go with her to let the dog out. The house was about 8 minutes away, and from the time we left to the time we got there I could not see. It wasn’t black, but it was as if I was looking through a kaleidoscope, unable to make out anything. Once we pulled in the driveway, all I remember is reaching for the door handle and getting sick outside the car. I later learned that Meredith called 911, got help from neighbors, and called my parents all while staying by my side. I was taken to the ER and released a few hours later with “maybe just a bad migraine.” I lost my license for 90 days due to Maryland laws for seizures but I returned to school the next day and continued with my daily life all the same. In late April we were told see a neurologist when I came home for the summer just to make sure everything was okay. 

I saw a neurologist that first Monday I was home for summer. I left the appointment with only good news, passing the baseline tests with flying colors and with the orders to get an EEG and MRI with contrast by the end of July because it’s procedural. I completed the tests and awaited my next appointment, to put this behind me, get my license back and make the most of my summer. 

After completing the EEG and MRI with contrast, I walked into my neurologist's office joking around with my dad waiting to be called back. They called my name, took me and my dad to exam room 2 where we waited for the neurologist. He walked in, his face went blank, he looked at my file and back at me, and said “I can’t believe I am telling you this Liza, but you have a tumor.” I cried; the tears wouldn’t stop. I had to call my mom to tell her and I truly couldn’t speak. I couldn't even tell my sisters, I had to send them a text with the news. The kids I babysat  everyday were waiting for me so I went over with swollen eyes pretending everything was okay, just staring at the clock waiting until 5pm. I called my best friend, the conversation hard and short. I couldn’t find the words but she needed to know. Everyone was distraught; everyone was scared. 

That upcoming weekend I had plans to go to Philadelphia for three days for a concert with a ton of my college friends. I’m pretty sure my dad wanted to come along so he wouldn't have to worry about me as much. Since there was no way he was coming with, we compromised by telling one of my friends in case anything were to happen but I spent the rest of the weekend with a forced smile on my face and a huge secret on the tip of my tongue. 

Little did I know, the next few months would be spent living from appointment to appointment hoping and praying for good news and answers. I was put on an anti-seizure medication and lost a decent amount of weight because the medicine made everything taste like metal. While people had to know, telling them was the worst part. I hated the look everyone would give me. It was as if they felt sorry for me but the closer you looked you could tell they were glad it wasn’t them. I had to call my coaches, athletic trainer, teammates, friends, and with every call came with the same recited story. Never did I think I would be starting my sophomore year with a brain tumor. 

The weeks leading up to preseason were filled with questions, would I be playing field hockey this fall? What was my treatment plan? How was I going to manage the stress? I decided to go back to school as staring at my bedroom walls with my dad not letting me out of his sight would do nothing for me but it was also decided that I wouldn’t be able to suit up and return to the hockey field until my next MRI in October. Returning to school was nothing short of eventful. I had to tell all of doctors and trainers at school about the situation to make sure that everyone knew incase of an emergency. Within the first week of school, I think 90% of my small liberal arts college knew why I wasn’t in a uniform. 

The days until October felt like years. People looked at me differently, some walked on eggshells around me, and I anxiously awaited my next MRI and appointment. The day finally arrived, and for the first time since July I was hoping I would receive some answers. I left the appointment more distraught and uneasy then before. 

The tumor was deeply embedded in my occipital lobe with surgery risking my eyesight. When I realized that I felt uneasy and uncomfortable with some of the smartest doctors in the world, my family and I decided to reach out for second, third and fourth opinions. We were seen at the University of Maryland, Children’s National in D.C., and finally The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). 

The second I walked into CHOP it was like a breath of fresh air. Dr. Storm saw me right away and was the first doctor to confidently tell me he could remove it. He was brilliant. For the first time since July, I was smiling instead of in tears when leaving a doctors office. The surgery was booked for December 23rd, and I went back to school to finish the semester. The last few weeks of school were stressful. The surgery was pushed back due to needing a new insurance plan, I was slammed with finals, and feeling deflated.

Finally the semester was over and I was excited to go home and enjoy the next two weeks with my family and friends before my surgery. The weekend I got home from school I was diagnosed with Mono forcing me to be bedridden and hoping this wouldn’t effect the surgery date. Needless to say winter break was not going well. The days leading up to my surgery were long and filled with anxiety, the risks of the surgery heavy on all of our minds and seemed to be the only thing anyone would or could talk about. 

On January 4th my parents and I left for Philadelphia for pre-op testing, an MRI, and getting more needles than expected… pre-op was not fun. After a full day in the hospital, we left for our hotel where I spent the next day in bed basically waiting for surgery. I received more phone calls, texts, Facebook and Instagram messages than ever before. At one point my phone truly froze and shut off due to the massive amount of messages. My mom’s phone wouldn’t stop buzzing with texts and Facebook notifications. I have never felt more love and prayer in my life. 

My sisters and Jim finally arrived at the hotel late that night, saying quick hellos before going to  bed for our 5am wake up call. We arrived at CHOP at 5:30 on the morning of January 6th. I was surrounded by children awaiting surgery, nervous parents, and scared siblings; we fit right in. It seemed like hours until I was called back but the moment I walked back and was scrubbed up, I had this overwhelming feeling of anxiousness but also calmness. I knew everything was going to be okay because every doctor and nurse reassured me it would be. The nurses held my hand all the way to the operating room, kept my mind off what was about to occur, they talked to me the entire time, and made sure I was as comfortable as possible. 

The next thing I know I am awake in the PICU with my family around me. It took longer than expected but 7 and a half hours later, I was done. I was tumor free. I was monitored every half hour, the amount of love and care showed to me by my doctors and nurses was overwhelming. They made sure my family and I had everything I needed. They helped me to be up and walking just 2 hours after my surgery. One nurse came in at 4am for their hourly night check and said to me “you’ll be out of here in 2 days, mark my words, I have never seen someone recover like you.” 

I had a large team on my case. There was a neurosurgeon, neuro-oncologist, and a neuro-opthamologist, plus all the nurses and attendings that spent their days with me. Their hope and drive for their patients is unlike anything I have ever felt in my life; they treated us as they would have treated their family. CHOP’s motto “Hope lives here.” could not be closer to the truth. 

I was in the hospital for two nights and was discharged Saturday afternoon. I spent the rest of winter break in my bed, walking here and there, with visits from friends and family keeping a smile on my face. I was incredibly grateful to have started the new year tumor-free and in the best health of my life.

I was able to return to school on time and was cleared for unrestricted activity just 6 weeks after my surgery date. I couldn't have done it without my large and powerful support system. The love, encouragement, and prayer from all of them is why I am healthy today. It is also the reason why I am able to run a 1/2 marathon in June as my “I beat my brain tumor” experience. I am excited to cross that finish line and turn the page on this chapter of my life. Not only am I thankful but I am also very blessed to have my sisters and friends running this 1/2 marathon for and with me, for others who have or are experiencing something similar and to raise awareness for brain tumors and this wonderful place called CHOP. 

The doctors, surgeons, and nurses at CHOP are nothing short of super heroes. The road was long, the road was hard, and I am still recovering, but my experience at CHOP is something I will never take for granted. I owe my life to the dedication and determination of every employee there. Please take a moment to consider donating to an incredible institution that is making children’s lives infinitely better.

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