By LESLIE COLLINS
June 27, 2012
Hela Kelsch had just finished taking her national medical board exams. She passed, but the stress wasn’t over.
Something was awry.
Her symptoms began three years ago when she began her first year of medical school at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences.
“I noticed I had single sided hearing loss. I had weird headaches, but everyone has headaches, so I didn’t really think anything of that,” the now 26-year-old said.
When she began struggling to hear the simulator patients over the microphone, she visited her hometown audiologist in Spokane, Wash.
“It was only a 10 percent difference between the two ears, so the doctor didn’t seem that concerned. He kind of blew me off to be honest. He made me feel silly.”
Despite explaining to him that she was a medical student, he talked to her like a five-year-old, she said.
“I just left feeling defeated,” she said.
While studying for the national medical board exams in June of 2011, she gained a new symptom: nystagmus. Her eyes began to jerk back and forth and a friend confirmed she could see the odd eye movement.
“Then, it kind of dawned on me, and I put all the symptoms together and I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. I think I have acoustic neuroma, a benign brain tumor on the 8th cranial nerve.’”
Kelsch approached her neuroanatomy professor Dr. Robert Stephens about her symptoms.
“I didn’t want to alarm her with anything, but I had a pretty good idea of what was going on,” Stephens said.
He recommended she continue studying for boards and helped her arrange an appointment with a KCUMB alumni neurologist for the following week.
Kelsch had an MRI and the hospital called her back within 45 minutes.
The scan confirmed her own diagnosis and her medical side kicked in. She was almost cheerful at first since she diagnosed her symptoms correctly.
“I said, ‘I knew it. Yea, I diagnosed it right!’ Then, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. That means I have a tumor.’ Then, it sank in and I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’”
Her benign brain tumor was slightly smaller than a baseball and was attached to the nerve that controls hearing and balance. During her first brain surgery, doctors could only remove 10 to 15 percent of the tumor. A second surgery removed about half of the tumor. Part of the tumor remained latched onto the brain stem, making it difficult to distinguish tumor from brain tissue.
During one of her surgeries, she suffered from a pulmonary embolism, permanent deafness in her right ear and destroyed balance on her right side. After her second surgery, she woke up with half her face paralyzed.
“It was hard having a different look – going from long hair and a face all working to short hair with acne from all the medicine,” she said.
Kelsch spoke with brutal honesty but didn’t beg for sympathy. With sincere patience, she explained the medical terms in a way that was easy to understand. Her stunted facial movements became almost unnoticeable as her bubbly personality and positive attitude shined through.
“She’s extremely strong,” KCUMB second-year medical student Kayla Behbahani said of Kelsch. “She is amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her without a smile on her face. I wish I had her spirit.”
• • •
Each surgery required a lengthy recovery. Following one of her surgeries, her parents thought she was going to die and asked a priest to bless her.
While recovering, all she wanted to do was sleep.
“I went from studying 12 hours a day for boards to sitting on the couch with nothing to do which was probably the worst of all,” she said. “Now, I can safely say I am totally back to normal. I feel fabulous, but after each surgery it took a while to get back to me.”
In addition to her surgeries, she also underwent one round of radiation, which required her to wear a halo that was drilled into her skull while she was awake. She passed out twice.
With several months of therapy, she learned to regain her balance, but she still has permanent deafness in her right ear. Her doctors are hoping she’ll regain all, if not most, of her facial movement in another 18 months. Until then, she must keep ointment in her right eye and tape it shut while she sleeps since she can’t blink.
• • •
Despite a medical leave of absence, KCUMB hasn’t forgotten about Kelsch. One of Kelsch’s friends, Racquel Skold, helped launch a fundraising campaign on campus this spring for Kelsch to receive an osseointegrated cochlear stimulator, which can mimic sound in the right ear. Cost of surgery and the stimulator totals $14,000. Campus clubs, students and faculty pitched in for the raffle ticket fundraiser and raised about $1,800.
“We were all excited because fundraisers on campus generally raise at the most $400, $500,” Skold said.
“These are people who don’t have a lot of money,” Stephens said. “For someone to give $10, that very well may be a student’s allotment for lunch that week… I’ve taught for 31 years and I haven’t seen that kind of selfless giving of both time and caring.”
When Kelsch found out about the fundraiser, she cried.
“I was so touched that people would help me,” she said. “It was just unbelievable.”
For Kelsch, the stimulator would be a godsend. When there’s background noise, she struggles to hear and can’t read lips. She worries it will affect her rotations if a doctor’s on the wrong side trying to communicate with her.
Despite the setbacks, Kelsch plans to continue with her Master of Bioethics and Doctor of Osteopathy degrees. In a matter of days, she’ll start her Bioethics classes again and will begin rotations. She’ll also use what she learned as a patient when she becomes a doctor, she said.
“Being a doctor is the only thing I have ever wanted to be,” she said.
And she’s not going to let a little brain tumor and hearing loss stop her.
• • •
WANT TO HELP?
•KCUMB students have set up a fundraising website to help Hela receive an osseointegrated cochlear stimulator, which will allow sound to travel from her deaf ear on the right to the working cochlea on her left.
•To donate, visit http://www.giveforward.com/healinghela.