Daniel Fine celebrated this 30th birthday in a hospital room with his life on the line.
Young and athletic, no one suspected he would have a brain tumor at age 29. To make matters worse, at the time of his diagnosis, Daniel was thousands of miles from home, working remotely as an IT specialist in Argentina to escape the dreary Seattle winter.
Local doctors discovered the brain tumor after he decided to get checked out for a sudden onset of headaches and nausea. Images revealed a tumor the size of a small orange in his brain stem. Because of its location, the surgery would be complex.
As soon as Daniel called his parents, Jon Fine and Paula Selis, they began searching for the best possible place for treatment. “Everyone said UW Medicine was state-of-the-art. They are absolutely the best at this kind of brain surgery, and they should be involved,” recalls Jon.
The doctors at UW Medicine took one look at Daniel’s brain images and told him to return home immediately. However, this wasn’t so easy. None of the commercial airlines, not even medical evacuation, wanted to risk flying him in his condition. Paula flew to her son, and she and Jon arranged a way for Daniel to come home quickly despite the risk.
Taken directly from the airport to UW Medical Center – Montlake, Daniel underwent his operation almost immediately. The entire family put their trust in Manuel Ferreira Jr., MD, PhD, chief of neurosurgery at UW School of Medicine and his team.
A true leader in the field
“When I saw Daniel’s brain images, I knew it was going to be a long operation,” says Ferreira. “There was a lot of very delicate, fine tedious dissection required.”
Daniel’s tumor, a pilocytic astrocytoma, is a type that arises from the brain itself. The outcome for someone like Daniel with a benign tumor in the brain stem that hasn’t yet spread hinges directly on the quality of the surgery performed. Should anything go awry, the consequences can be life altering since the brain stem communicates with the spinal cord, regulates respiration and heart rate, and is the seat of consciousness itself.
Thankfully, these kinds of complex brain surgeries are what Ferreira and his team at the UW Medicine Neurosciences Institute (NSI) are trained to do. “We’ve actually mapped the brain stem,” says Ferreira. “So, while the patient is asleep and anesthetized, we can stimulate different parts of the brain stem and the nerves that go in and out to get a road map of physiological function before we even touch the tumor.”
The NSI is the quaternary referral center for brain tumors for the entire West Coast and Pacific Rim. Ferreira and his team treat the most medically complex nervous system disorders across 18 different sub-specialties, so staying at the forefront of innovation is imperative. For instance, UW Medicine is the only center in the U.S., one of only two in the world, to have a proton beam and a neutron beam available to patients for radiation therapy.
A hockey fan, Ferreira uses a sports analogy to illustrate the ethos of the department to constantly improve. “Leaders go to where the puck is heading instead of staying where the puck is. If they don’t, they’ll never push the field forward,” says Ferreira. “We’re forever trying to get better. We need to be the best in the world in neurosurgery, neuro-oncology — in everything that relates to the brain and spinal cord.”
Back up the mountain
The Fine family on a hike
Jon felt scared, but also proud of his son for facing the situation with such courage. The entire family took a matter-of-fact approach and felt confident in Daniel’s team of doctors. After the surgery, they all took things one step at a time, and for Daniel this was literally the case.
Jon recalls putting his arm around his son to help him walk around the floor of UW Medicine, still feeling in shock about what had happened. “This is a kid who could scramble up a mountain like a mountain goat. He and his sister, Rebecca, and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro together, and now he couldn’t walk around one floor without my help,” he says.
For a month after surgery, Daniel was in intensive rehabilitation, re-learning how to walk and feed himself, followed by two years of consistent rehabilitation, working on vision and balance issues. Today, five years later, Daniel has regained all his functioning and is back to climbing mountains and traveling south to avoid gray Seattle winters.
Centering the patient
Jon feels grateful for all the members of their support team who helped them navigate every stage of his son’s journey toward recovery. This network of experts included not only Daniel’s neurosurgeon, Ferreira, but extended to the neuro-oncologist they saw to discuss what they should do if the tumor returns, the neuro-ophthalmologist they saw to help with vision issues, the neuro-radiologists responsible for all of Daniel’s imaging, MRI and CT scans, and all the rehabilitation specialists, among so many others.
This multi-disciplinary approach to care is what the NSI is all about. “When I think of the Neurosciences Institute and what we’re trying to do at UW Medicine, it all revolves around the patient,” says Ferreira. “We are an enormous multidisciplinary team of clinicians, researchers and staff working for one common goal: to help patients get better.”
Diving in to make a difference
After their son’s positive experience at UW Medicine and his full recovery, Jon and Paula wanted to do more. Jon, the former president of United Way of King County, is very familiar with the power of fundraising to accelerate research and make things happen, so he reached out to Ferreira to ask how they could help.
Today, Jon is on the board of the NSI helping to raise funds to find cures, accelerate innovation and raise awareness for brain tumors and for many other neurological disorders, including multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
He does this work because he believes that the NSI and people like Ferreira can do great things to find cures and give patients facing the most challenging situations of their lives the hope they need.
“These are the best minds and the best people going wider, deeper and working more effectively in ways we can’t even completely imagine,” says Jon. “That’s an extraordinary gift they are giving people in the world, and that’s why I want to help support it.”
Written by Eleanor Licata