Patient Stories

"I think of the milestones I could have missed if it weren’t for Dr. Hakma and his team."

For two years, Myriah Stanley struggled to find the cause of her agonizing headaches. Some doctors she consulted thought they might be linked to longtime sinus infections. Others thought the underlying problem could be stress. As the headaches grew worse, Myriah began to briefly pass out. “My head would nod, and I would come to again,” says the 40-year-old hairstylist and Hamilton resident. “Nothing stopped the pain.”

A turning point came in July 2020, when Myriah fainted while driving and damaged her car. Concerned that her condition—whatever the cause—was putting her at risk, her family encouraged her to go to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Hamilton.

Turning first to the Emergency Department (ED), Myriah felt she was in good hands from her first conversation. “I was told they wouldn’t leave any stone unturned until they found answers,” she says.

The answer came swiftly: Scans showed a mass on her brain’s left temporal lobe, behind her eye. The tumor was triggering small seizures that had led to her fainting spells.

Myriah was admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU), where she received anti-seizure medication and was told she would need surgery to remove the tumor and find out whether it was cancerous. “It was a lot to process,” Myriah says. “I was completely dumbfounded. I felt like I was dreaming.”

Discussing Risks

Zakaria Hakma, MD, FACS, FAANS, Director of Neurosciences and Chief of Neurosurgery at RWJUH Hamilton and a member of the Global Neurosciences Institute, evaluated Myriah’s options for removing the tumor. The delicate procedure would need to remove the abnormal growth without damaging adjacent healthy tissue in an area of the brain that was related to both speech and the ability to move the right side of her body.

“We talked about the surgery and its risks,” Myriah says. Dr. Hakma cautioned that she potentially could need post-op rehabilitation to relearn how to walk, talk and write.

Yet options were limited, and the possibility of brain cancer increased the urgency of treatment. If her tumor was cancerous, Myriah would also need to receive chemotherapy and radiation treatment. “It was something that needed to be taken care of right away,” Dr. Hakma says.

Myriah decided to schedule the operation immediately. From her experience at RWJUH Hamilton thus far, she felt she could trust Dr. Hakma and his team. “I didn’t care what they had to do,” she says. She knew her diagnosis was serious, and surgery could save her life.

A Chain Of Care

Dr. Hakma performed a stereotactic craniotomy, a procedure in which he carefully separated Myriah’s brain tumor from the surrounding brain and vascular structure. The procedure uses the-art imaging technology to locate the tumor and navigate during surgery. “The goal is to be as accurate and least invasive as humanly possible,” Dr. Hakma says.

When Myriah emerged from anesthesia, the team that had treated her in the ED visited her room and broke into applause. “It wasn’t cancer,” Myriah says. The tumor instead had been a grade 1 meningioma, or noncancerous brain growth.

There was more good news: Dr. Hakma had successfully removed the entire tumor, and Myriah was able to speak and walk immediately after surgery. She went home a few days later, with tiny screws holding her skull incision in place. She continued attending follow-up appointments, and her MRIs showed no residual tumor or regrowth. Myriah was able to return to her hairstyling practice and spend time with her three children.

Since her diagnosis and surgery, Myriah has turned 40, watched her oldest daughter graduate from college and celebrated her son earning his driver’s permit. “I think of the milestones I could have missed if it weren’t for Dr. Hakma and his team,” she says. “They saved my life.”

Dr. Hakma is more circumspect. He points to a chain of expert care that, in a series of critical steps, led Myriah to successful treatment. “Having a team of experts at every level makes the surgeon’s job a lot easier,” he says. Doctors in the ED quickly found Myriah’s tumor. Nurses in the ICU delivered medication and steered Myriah to the right resources. Dr. Hakma provided guidance on Myriah’s options and carried out a successful surgery with support from a specialized team.

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“I think of the milestones I could have missed if it weren’t for Dr. Hakma and his team.”

Myriah Stanley