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Mother Love: A Patient Fights Against a Life-Threatening Diagnosis to Give Birth

With help from a Spanish interpreter, Sugey learned a massive brain tumor had developed in her brain.
Sugey was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor while pregnant
with her son James. BMC physicians, nurses, social workers, interpreters
and therapists collaborated closely to treat Sugey and to help her
deliver a healthy child.

On a summer afternoon in July 2009, Sugey Mejia sat quietly in a doctor’s office as life as she knew it changed forever. With help from a Spanish interpreter, she listened to doctors explain her test results. A massive tumor had developed in her brain. Its shear size, roughly that of a softball, was enough to threaten her life. It had to be removed quickly. She was 23-weeks pregnant, and now she faced decisions that no expectant mother should have to make.

“At one point, the doctors explained that I might have to make a choice between my life and my child’s, but I was willing to die in order to let my child live,” says Sugey in her soft voice.

Headaches and nausea are typical symptoms of pregnancy, but 30-year-old Sugey knew that something was terribly wrong. The pain she felt was increasingly crippling, and her vomit was tinged with blood. Terrified, she discussed her symptoms with her obstetrician Jennifer Ballard Dwan, M.D., who specializes in high risk obstetrics and was monitoring Sugey for gestational diabetes at Boston Medical Center. Dr. Ballard Dwan was concerned and referred Sugey to Neurology and Radiology for further testing.

Now, with a diagnosis to explain her symptoms, Sugey and her husband, Carlos, made an extremely difficult decision: Sugey would delay her surgery for several weeks until her baby could be delivered safely. In the meantime, staff from BMC’s Neurosurgery, Obstetrics, Anesthesiology, Neonatal, Nursing and Rehabilitation departments collaborated closely to develop Sugey’s surgery and treatment plan.

In late summer, Sugey’s beautiful thick hair was shaved, and she underwent an embolization to shrink the tumor in preparation for its removal. Overnight, however, her tumor swelled, and she lapsed into a coma. As the seconds ticked away, her situation became extremely critical. James Holsapple, MD, was the neurosurgeon managing Sugey’s care.

“Emergency surgery was utterly necessary. Fortunately, much advanced planning had occurred and everyone involved was on high alert—so we were ready to show up and do what needed to be done. Sugey went from the ICU to the OR within minutes. There is no question that the rapidity of the response saved her life,” says Dr. Holsapple.

Dr. Ballard Dwan and her team carefully monitored the fetus, while Dr. Holsapple worked to remove Sugey’s tumor. The operation was a success, the fetus remained stable, and Sugey began her long journey toward recovery. With much of her third trimester still ahead of her, she stayed at BMC to re-learn how to walk and to receive cognitive and speech therapy. After several weeks of intense therapy, Sugey was well enough to return home to wait out the rest of her pregnancy.

On November 17, 2009, Sugey’s son, James Jesus Mejia, was born. With big brown eyes and a shock of black hair, the baby was perfectly healthy.

“We celebrate every baby at BMC, but this particular celebration was a little bigger than the other ones,” remembers Dr. Ballard Dwan.

But no one was happier that day than the mother who risked her life to give birth: “We named him ‘James’ because of the doctor that operated on me, and we named him ‘Jesus’ because he is a miracle,” smiles Sugey.

Sugey’s story is one of three inspiring patient stories that Boston Medical Center featured during the 2010 Gala. Watch her story online.