8 Incredible Medical Stories

Local patients and doctors share eight remarkable tales of real-life medical drama right here in Pittsburgh.



(page 1 of 4)


Photography by Becky Thurner Braddock

Morgan Dysert and Dr.  Khaled Aziz, director of Allegheny General Hospital’s Center of Complex Intracranial Surgery.

 

Washington County native Morgan Dysert was finishing up her freshman year at the University of Minnesota in spring 2010. The athletic student figured the minor eye problems she was experiencing came from late-night study sessions. But her vision continued to worsen for a week, so she consulted an ophthalmologist.

The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with Morgan’s eyes, but suggested she get a brain scan, to be safe. “That’s when we found out about the brain tumor,” Morgan recalls, “and so my mom immediately said, ‘I’ve heard about this Dr. Aziz — we should see him!’” Morgan’s mother was a director of nursing at Allegheny General Hospital, so she was already familiar with Dr. Khaled Aziz, director of the hospital’s Center of Complex Intracranial Surgery.

Morgan’s tumor, called a trigeminal schwannoma, was rare. And it was growing — already impacting the nerves that controlled eye movement and facial sensations. Her face was beginning to go numb. The tumor was benign, but her symptoms would continue to worsen and eventually become unbearable.

Dr. Aziz confirmed that it was a trigeminal schwannoma — and had more difficult news for Morgan and her family: Although these tumors can sometimes be treated with radiation, hers was too advanced. Morgan’s best removal option was a complicated, dangerous operation; the procedure would be particularly difficult due to the tumor’s location underneath her brain, near delicate nerves and the vital carotid artery.

Normally, risks associated with this surgery include bleeding, strokes and infections — yet Morgan says that Dr. Aziz approached her and her family with a confidence and compassion that allayed their fears. “He told me and my mother [about] everything that would happen [in the surgery] and all the horrible things that could go wrong — but [my mom] came out of that discussion smiling and believing everything would be fine. [That discussion] sticks with me. That was amazing.”

The surgery Dr. Aziz and his team performed on Morgan took about eight hours (the first hours were spent on the crucial positioning of Morgan for the extremely precise procedures to come). A separate team of specialists was involved in preparing an electrovisiologic monitoring system, which would watch her nervous system function throughout the surgery.

Dr. Aziz made a small incision at the base of Morgan’s skull above the jaw and went in underneath the brain (but outside the brain covering). Once that layer was dissected, he was able to follow her trigeminal nerve (a cranial nerve with ties to facial sensation, biting and chewing, and more) back to the tumor. The trick was to remove the tumor carefully without injuring any vital structures. He employed microsurgical techniques to ensure accuracy and also utilized a special computerized navigation system — similar to a car’s — as he moved, helping him to quickly target the tumor.

Finally, he used delicate ultrasonic aspirators to break up and suction out the tumor without damaging surrounding nerves and tissue — another example of the high-tech tools that allow today’s brain surgeons to cure what was once inoperable. “We were able to take out the tumor with minimum manipulation,” Dr. Aziz says, “so her symptoms began to disappear.”

Morgan’s recovery progressed swiftly. She was only in the hospital for five days, and her symptoms were gone in a week. She was able to start the fall semester of her sophomore year, with a pretty amazing story about what she’d done on her summer vacation.

Dr. Benjamin Shneider, director of pediatric hepatology at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and Sam Zarpas.

 

At just a few months old, Sam Zarpas of Norfolk, Va., faced a dangerous medical crisis unprecedented in babies his age. It began with a rare autoimmune disorder called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), for which local doctors treated him with steroids — the standard treatment, though the medication often impacts growth in children.

This worked initially, but a few months later, Sam’s eyes turned yellow; he had become jaundiced, indicating liver failure. Doctors thought he had autoimmune hepatitis, in which the body’s immune system attacks its liver. More steroids were prescribed but didn’t help, and his parents were frustrated and scared. “Health-care [professionals] here couldn’t figure out what was going on,” says his mother, Cindi, “but they kept pumping him full of steroids. They didn’t want to think outside the box.”

Fortunately, Cindi was friends with a doctor at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, so Sam’s liver biopsy was sent there. It attracted the attention of Dr. Benjamin Shneider, director of pediatric hepatology: “It’s rare to have ITP at 2 months [and] rare to have liver disease at 7 months,” Dr. Shneider says. “Were the two problems connected? That was the rub. Sam also had significant side effects from the steroids — high blood pressure and growth trouble. He was very sick.”

Though Sam was initially evaluated for a liver transplant, Dr. Shneider knew that this major surgery might prove only a temporary solution. He felt that the key to Sam’s immediate and longterm health would be a thorough and accurate diagnosis of his unheard-of combination of conditions.

Examining Sam’s liver cells, Dr. Shneider saw evidence of the rare giant cell hepatitis, and a condition called Coombs’ positive hemolytic anemia, in which antibodies destroy red blood cells. “But in Sam’s case, antibodies were destroying his [blood’s] platelets,” Dr. Shneider explains. “My take was that he had a disease similar to the Coombs’ subset of giant cell hepatitis, but instead of Coombs’, he had ITP. This situation was effectively unique.”

Dr. Shneider felt the medication Rituximab, used for overactive immune systems, could work for Sam, though it had never been used for his specific situation. “We were in uncharted waters with the experimental use of medication on someone so young,” says Cindi, “and the potential side effects were awful! But Dr. Shneider had a wonderful demeanor and confidence, and he kept us calm.”

Sam received four weekly doses of Rituximab, and within three months, his blood clotting factors and liver enzymes were just about normal. Doctors tapered his steroids to a minimum, ending his high blood pressure and growth problems. “He’s 3 now, and you’d never know he was sick a day in his life,” says Cindi. “He’s walking, talking, the right size and shape.”

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Artist David Bernabo creates a series of films that track various aspects of Pittsburgh's food culture.
Crosby's Breakaway Goal, Yeah You Want to Watch it Again

Crosby's Breakaway Goal, Yeah You Want to Watch it Again

Sidney Crosby's unassisted goal was his third game-winning score in the series against Tampa Bay.
Cyclists Say PennDOT's Bike Map a Start, but Could Be Better

Cyclists Say PennDOT's Bike Map a Start, but Could Be Better

The state's new interactive bike map displays the speed limit and traffic flow of state route bike paths.
In the Future: No Driver May Be No Problem for Uber

In the Future: No Driver May Be No Problem for Uber

Pittsburgh is the test track for the ride sharing company's self-driving vehicles.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Nearby Canonsburg is a rare find for antiques collectors.
U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

The U.S. Open is returning to Oakmont — and unlike previous tournaments, this one could make the community a vital part of the action.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Artist David Bernabo creates a series of films that track various aspects of Pittsburgh's food culture.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

DeShantz owns three other Pittsburgh restaurants and is about to open a fourth.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

The in-house tavern at the Riverhounds' home stadium is now welcoming guests during weekdays. But is it worth a dedicated stop?

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Crosby’s Long-Awaited Signature has Pens Pondering The Possibilities

Crosby’s Long-Awaited Signature has Pens Pondering The Possibilities

For Sidney Crosby and for the Penguins, happy days are here again. But the emotion of the moment won’t mean much if Crosby and the Penguins aren’t able to build upon it as the series progresses.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Recycled Paper Never Looked So Good

Recycled Paper Never Looked So Good

Whether you’re looking for an original illustration, a cute note card to send a friend or a unique notebook to keep track of your thoughts, Little Alexander’s paper goods offer beautiful locally made options.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The Angry Birds Movie Is Just a Total Mess

The Angry Birds Movie Is Just a Total Mess

Plus reviews of "The Nice Guys" and "Neighbors 2," as well as local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Get with the (Wedding) Program

Get with the (Wedding) Program

Have you ever considered making programs for your wedding guests? If not, think again and get creative.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

Spread out across the city for these upcoming events, including a “Tiny House” exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center displayed by the FIY Network.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Pitt Adds New Major

Pitt Adds New Major

The environmental engineering major will be available in the 2016-17 academic year and aims to help students prepare for a changing job market.

Comments