In her third trimester, Aimee Garrison finally became convinced the soreness and tension across her shoulder blades and into her back had to be more than just part of being pregnant.
“I had been running and lifting weights all the way up to 26 weeks,” the marathoner from Kalamazoo says, “so I slowed down, but it didn’t get better. Soon I was having trouble sleeping and keeping up with my toddler.”
Eventually, an MRI revealed Aimee was one of the less than 2,000 adults each year who find out they have a spinal cord ependymoma. A tumor the size of a baby carrot had been slowly growing in Aimee’s spinal cord, pushing her spinal cord against her vertebrae.
“It was a really scary moment,” Aimee says. “I was the most worried about the baby.”
Aimee and her husband Mark wanted to learn more about what they were dealing with, but quickly grew frustrated about the lack of information available.
“I was just trying to learn about what was going on, but there aren’t a lot of resources available about such a rare condition,” Mark says. “It’s a weird feeling to type something into a search engine and get almost no results.”
The Garrisons came to the University of Michigan Health System, where the neurosurgeons see 5-10 cases per year, to figure out what to do next.
“One challenging decision was whether to operate while Aimee was still pregnant or whether to wait for the delivery of the baby,” says U-M neurosurgeon Daniel Orringer, M.D. “Operating while pregnant would put the fetus at risk of stress, exposure to toxic medications and possibly risk of death.”
Dr. Orringer gathered a team of neurosurgeons, anesthesiologists and an obstetrician to care for Aimee and her unborn child, a second girl to be named Sloane. They decided it was safe for Aimee to carry her baby to term, have a C-section, and then return for surgery.
“Things started to calm down, and a plan developed,” says Aimee’s husband Mark. “We learned it had probably been there forever and just growing slowly, and it was benign, so it would be OK to wait a little longer.”
On Dec. 22, 2015, Aimee delivered baby Sloane at U-M. Two weeks later, Aimee returned for 20 hours of surgeries over two days to remove the tumor, and then walked to her wheelchair when it was over.
“What struck me most was her positive attitude during this extremely stressful time,” says Lauryn Rochlen, M.D., a U-M anesthesiologist who was part of the team for Aimee’s tumor removal. “It is hard enough to have just had your second child, but Aimee did extremely well.”
The Garrisons, now a family of four, returned to West Michigan, where Aimee spent three weeks at inpatient rehab. Mark took over full-time parenting for 2 1/2-year-old Vivienne and newborn Sloane.
The day she left rehab, Aimee astonished Dr. Orringer with her recovery, celebrating the ease with which she can do the simple things again, like walking down a hallway. She’s only struggling with some weakness in one hand.
“Her resilience was a major factor in her outstanding progress,” Dr. Orringer says. “Her recovery was amazingly fast and she has the potential to return to full function – even running marathons again.”
Mark’s goal is to keep taking great care of Aimee and the children so mom can lace up those running shoes as soon as possible. Aimee says first, though, she’s most eager to hold Sloane and Vivienne and take care of them without help, which she’s lucky to have a lot of right now.
“It’s crazy how many people reach out to offer help and assistance. Our family and friends are awesome,” Aimee says.
Looking back, the mom of two is glad she advocated for herself when she knew something was wrong, so she could start on the path to being well.
Take the next step:
- Get involved: make a gift to the Department of Neurosurgery to fuel research for many rare diseases, provide necessary program support and advance the mission of the department
- See patient resources and more stories from the Spinal Cord Tumor Association
- Learn about the latest OR technologies Dr. Orringer is using for cases like Aimee’s
- Learn about Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Michigan Health System
Daniel Orringer, M.D., is assistant professor of neurological surgery at the University of Michigan Health System. He received his degree from the Ohio State University College of Medicine & Public Health and completed his residency in neurosurgery at the University of Michigan Health System.
The University of Michigan’s multidisciplinary neuroscience team is made up of more than 70 nationally recognized neurologists and neurosurgeons. Leading the way in brain, spine and nervous system care for close to 100 years, patients have access to services that can be found at only a handful of places as well as cutting-edge treatments with the latest research. Neurology and Neurosurgery at the University of Michigan Health System have been recognized by U.S. News & World Report numerous times for excellence in patient care.