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 of the 'Burgh 2016

Best of the 'Burgh 2016

We scoured the region to bring you 53 items we’ve deemed this year’s “Best of the ’Burgh,” as well as 8 stellar local Instagram accounts you don’t want to miss.
See Yinz: PittGirl Says Goodbye

See Yinz: PittGirl Says Goodbye

After writing for seven years about the city for Pittsburgh Magazine and pittsburghmagazine.com, Virginia Montanez is discontinuing her blog and column.
Restaurant Review: Whitfield at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh

Restaurant Review: Whitfield at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh

The restaurant at Ace Hotel in East Liberty hits some high notes as it finds itself.
Pride of McKeesport: WNBA Star Swin Cash

Pride of McKeesport: WNBA Star Swin Cash

During her final season of professional basketball, Cash remains ferocious on the court and selfless everywhere else.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Pittsburgh-Area Fireworks 2016: When & Where to Watch Them

Pittsburgh-Area Fireworks 2016: When & Where to Watch Them

You can get your fill of fireworks all weekend long, if you know where and when to look.
Downtown Restaurant Owners Win Big

Downtown Restaurant Owners Win Big

Richard DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik of the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group are among the regional winners of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.
Feeling Hot! Meteorologists Predict Sweaty Summer For Pittsburgh

Feeling Hot! Meteorologists Predict Sweaty Summer For Pittsburgh

Ready for 90-degree temperature weather? What you need to know about summer 2016.
Pittsburgh's Union Trust Building Renovated and Restored

Pittsburgh's Union Trust Building Renovated and Restored

The historic Downtown building reopens after a two-year, $100 million renovation.

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 of the 'Burgh 2016

Best of the 'Burgh 2016

We scoured the region to bring you 53 items we’ve deemed this year’s “Best of the ’Burgh,” as well as 8 stellar local Instagram accounts you don’t want to miss.
See Yinz: PittGirl Says Goodbye

See Yinz: PittGirl Says Goodbye

After writing for seven years about the city for Pittsburgh Magazine and pittsburghmagazine.com, Virginia Montanez is discontinuing her blog and column.
Restaurant Review: Whitfield at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh

Restaurant Review: Whitfield at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh

The restaurant at Ace Hotel in East Liberty hits some high notes as it finds itself.
Pride of McKeesport: WNBA Star Swin Cash

Pride of McKeesport: WNBA Star Swin Cash

During her final season of professional basketball, Cash remains ferocious on the court and selfless everywhere else.
Idol Find: Pittsburgh Rapper Teams Up with Dad Jimmy McNichol for New Show

Idol Find: Pittsburgh Rapper Teams Up with Dad Jimmy McNichol for New Show

Research led Kellee Maize to discover she is the daughter of the former teen singing sensation. Now she and McNichol are teaming up to develop a television series to help other parents and children find each other.
Daytripping: Rating the Roller Coasters at Cedar Point

Daytripping: Rating the Roller Coasters at Cedar Point

One day, 18 roller coasters, four queasy stomachs, two cheeseburgers, one fried dough … whew.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Pittsburgh-Area Fireworks 2016: When & Where to Watch Them

Pittsburgh-Area Fireworks 2016: When & Where to Watch Them

You can get your fill of fireworks all weekend long, if you know where and when to look.

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
James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef Tour Stops In Pittsburgh

James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef Tour Stops In Pittsburgh

Justin Severino and Hilary Prescott Severino of Cure and Morcilla organized the event, which featured celebrated chefs from DC, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 7 Spots in Pittsburgh to Watch the 2016 Euro Cup

The Best 7 Spots in Pittsburgh to Watch the 2016 Euro Cup

Grab your kits, scarfs and get ready to watch the Euro 2016 Pittsburgh-style. We'll show you where to go to get your fan on.

Comments


Beer Cults and Brick Ovens: An Evening at Fuel & Fuddle

Beer Cults and Brick Ovens: An Evening at Fuel & Fuddle

The restaurant and bar in Oakland welcomes college students and locals alike.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Bucs' Biggest Problem Easier to Identify than Solve

Bucs' Biggest Problem Easier to Identify than Solve

As the Pirates try to climb out of a demoralizing slump, one factor has emerged as the team's biggest shortcoming.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Add a Bygone Beacon to Your Living Room

Add a Bygone Beacon to Your Living Room

Vintage signs can add a pop of personality to your decor.

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.
Demons, Orcs, Hipsters and More at the Multiplex

Demons, Orcs, Hipsters and More at the Multiplex

Reviews of "The Conjuring 2," "Warcraft," "Maggie's Plan," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Noah’s Ark Nuptials: One Couple’s Kennywood Wedding

Noah’s Ark Nuptials: One Couple’s Kennywood Wedding

The restoration of the iconic Noah’s Ark whale entrance came just in time to be the backdrop for this Pittsburgh couple’s wedding.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Purple Reign: PPG Paints Unveils 2017 Color of the Year

Purple Reign: PPG Paints Unveils 2017 Color of the Year

Violet Verbena’s grey-purple tones are playful, elegant and calming. Plus, get the history behind some of Pittsburgh's architectural wonders.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Summer Robotics Camp Offered to High-School Students

Summer Robotics Camp Offered to High-School Students

The camp is a collaboration between two area universities and is open to students entering grades 9-12.

Comments