- By Dana Sparks
Sharing Mayo Clinic: COVID-19 setback right before brain surgery
Julie Berg's life revolves around three things: family, friends and faith. The 79-year-old has a large extended family that enjoys celebrating large and small milestones together, and she has a wide network of close-knit friends across two states. Through it all, her strong Catholic faith has been the foundation of her life. When Julie's health was tested, she leaned on her family, friends and faith for support.
For 10 years, Julie and her husband, Jim Berg, spent winters in Arlington, Texas, and summers in their motor home on a lake with extended family in Le Center, Minnesota. Her days were spent with her friends from church and entertaining loved ones from near and far, including the couple's two sons and five grandchildren.
In September 2020, the couple was enjoying the waning summer days in Minnesota when Julie was surprised to discover that she was having trouble speaking and slurring her words after returning from a walk.
Jim was concerned, so he drove her to the Emergency Department at Mayo Clinic Health System in New Prague, Minnesota. The care team ordered an MRI, which revealed a spot on her brain. Julie was quickly transferred to Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, Minnesota.
"She had a very ill-defined looking mass on her brain," says Manish Sharma, M.B.B.S., the Mayo Clinic Health System neurosurgeon who evaluated Julie. "At this point, we didn't even know whether it was from a stroke or if it was a tumor."
Julie's symptoms improved, and she was able to return home to recover before follow-up appointments with her doctors. Three days later, Julie's son, Jason Berg, arrived from Texas for a visit.
"She seemed OK at first, but the next morning she started talking gibberish. We immediately set out for the ER," says Jason.
On the way, Julie's condition worsened, and she began to have seizures. Julie was admitted to the hospital and had a second MRI of her brain. The previously identified small spot on her brain had grown over five or six times in size.
"At this point, Julie had a rapidly increasing brain mass, which was likely to be a glioblastoma multiforme — the kind that Sen. John McCain had," says Dr. Sharma, referencing the late U.S. senator from Arizona. "It was located in the area of the brain responsible for dominant hand function and understanding speech."
Glioblastoma multiforme is a highly aggressive type of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord. It can occur at any age, but it tends to occur more often in older adults. This type of cancer accounts for over half of all primary brain tumors and can be difficult to treat. A cure often is not possible, but treatments can slow cancer progression, and reduce signs and symptoms.
Dr. Sharma outlined the choices for Julie and her family: Biopsy the tumor, undergo surgery to remove the tumor or leave it and let nature take its course. Every choice was hard. The family weighed the options.
"My mom has always been a very positive person," says Jason. "She wanted to try to fight it, but mentally and emotionally, she was good with whatever was going to happen."
The family decided to move forward with surgery to remove the mass. As a precaution, all patients undergoing surgery were tested for COVID-19 three days before their surgery date. The Bergs were surprised to discover that Julie had tested positive for the virus, which meant her surgery would be postponed.
"During surgery, patients are intubated which can cause tiny particles called aerosols to carry the virus into the air," says Eric Gomez-Urena, M.D., Infectious Diseases physician. "As a precaution, surgery was postponed to lower the risk of virus transition and protect the safety of our staff."
A few days later, Julie began to experience symptoms of COVID-19, and she was admitted for pneumonia to the hospital at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.
Read the rest of Julie's story on Sharing Mayo Clinic..