By Daniela Gomez, as told to Stephanie Watson
High school can be kind of a headache in itself, but my freshman year brought for-real headaches. They weren't very painful, but I had them every day, to the point where I finally told my mom about them.
She took me to a nearby emergency room, but they told me it was just stress from school. "Find out what's stressing you out, deal with it, and your headaches will go away," the doctor said. They didn't go away.
I eventually got so used to the headaches that I could get through school even when I had them, but I always knew they were there.
It's Not a Toothache
A year after I graduated from high school, I got a pain in my jaw. When I went to a clinic, they said it could be from one of my teeth hitting a nerve. They sent me to a dentist, who couldn't find anything on an X-ray. My tooth was nowhere near a nerve. But the dentist shaved down the tooth anyway to make it less painful for me to eat.
The pain didn't stop, so I went back to the clinic. They told me to go back to the dentist. This time, the dentist said he'd take out the tooth because he didn't know what was wrong. I had a feeling that my tooth wasn't the problem, and the last thing I wanted was to lose a tooth. I ate on the other side of my mouth so my jaw wouldn't hurt.
At around the same time, I was talking to a friend on the phone. My right ear was getting tired from the pressure of holding the phone against it, so I switched the phone to my left side. The discomfort stopped, but I couldn't hear as well. Another time when I was talking to the same friend and I switched the phone to my left ear, I couldn't hear at all.
I decided to visit an ear doctor. They did a series of tests. When I met with the doctor, he told me a growth could be causing my hearing loss. He sent me to the hospital for an MRI.
An Answer to My Headaches
Once my MRI results were in, my doctor came into my room and sat down next to me on the bed. She said very gently, "You have a mass in your head."
I just stared at her. A mass? I didn't even know what that meant at first.
She explained to me that a tumor had damaged my cochlea to the point where I'd lost hearing in my left ear. All I could hear were the low pitches, which was basically nothing. But I stood to lose even more during the surgery to remove the tumor. My doctors told me there were a lot of nerves in the way, like the nerves in my shoulder that allowed me to raise my arm, and these nerves might get damaged. My vocal cords were also in the way, so they said my voice might get raspy. And if they hit my optic nerve, I could go blind. I tried not to think too much about these risks. I knew that if I dwelled on them, my emotional state would go downhill fast.
The good news was that the tumor looked benign, although my doctors wouldn't know for sure until they removed a piece during surgery and sent it to a lab for testing.
Although I wasn't happy about my diagnosis, it was a relief, in a way, to finally know why I was having all of those headaches.
Removing the Tumor
I needed two separate surgeries at IU Health to get the tumor out. I had the first one in July 2019. It took 13 hours for my doctors to remove the part that was outside of my skull. I had an incision on my head that ran down behind my ear.
In the second surgery, they removed the rest of the tumor, along with my eardrum, which no longer worked without my cochlea. That took 14 hours, and it left a scar all the way down my neck. I woke up after surgery when the doctors were wrapping my head. I remember feeling so drained of energy, but I still tried to lift my head a little bit to help them get the bandage underneath. As soon as I lifted my head, I knocked back out.
I ended up needing a third surgery because fluid was leaking from my head. They put in a small tube called a shunt to drain it.
I was relieved to find out that the tumor was benign. And fortunately, all of the risks my surgeon warned me about never happened. After surgery, my voice went back to normal and I was able to eat -- and see. The hearing loss in my left ear was permanent, but I wear hearing aids. That helps a lot.
Just before my surgery, my headaches had gotten so bad that they kept me in bed a lot of the time. I remember a week before the surgery, I had a pretty rough headache where I couldn't even lift my head off the pillow.
I wasn't expecting my headaches to go away as fast as they did. My days are much easier now without them. I can get out of bed and do more at home. I'm feeling a lot better.
Daniela Gomez is a 21-year-old home health aide. She is currently taking time off from work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.