Brain Surgery, 6 Months Postpartum

All new parents inspire us. But some new parents leave us in absolute awe. Lizzy Wei McIntosh is one of those people, having undergone brain surgery 6 months after her baby was born. She blogged about her story, but we had some extra questions. She had some awesome answers. 

Lizzy, let’s start way back. Were kids always in your life plans? 

I've wanted kids ever since I got married at age 21. My husband, Chad, and I agreed to wait 5 years so that we could have some time with just each other, and then we started trying after that. 

As a family physician trained in deliveries, I see way too many bad pregnancy outcomes, so I was nervous the entire pregnancy that something would go wrong. But we had a healthy baby girl, Aletheia (Theia for short) who is now 20 months old. She brings us so much joy. We love watching her grow and can't imagine life without her! 

Sounds like you had a healthy pregnancy. So, when did you first feel like something was wrong?

I noticed some strange blurred peripheral vision in November 2018, about a month after I gave birth. In fact, the Snellen chart looked like this.

The Snellen Chart - all fuzzy from a brain tumor

The optometrist referred me to an ophthalmologist, who ordered an MRI and promptly referred me to a neurosurgeon. I didn't exactly have a "tumor" (which is usually solid), more of a "cyst" (fluid collection) around my pituitary gland. 

MRI pictures of my brain
MRI pictures of my brain

MRI pictures of my brain with yellow circles around the cyst.

MRI pictures of my brain with yellow circles around the cyst.

What went through your head when you got that news? 

First I thought there must have been a mistake on the scan. Then, I thought that the surgeon would probably just say to monitor it. I did NOT expect to have to need surgery, and it took two visits to the surgeon's office for me to wrap my head around that fact. 

I wasn't too worried about the actual surgery, but I did worry about having to take more time off from residency since I had just finished my maternity leave.

So you weren’t nervous about the actual surgery?

Not really. In order of concern, I was way more anxious about getting general anesthesia, intubated, and about my milk supply than about the actual surgery. But all these turned out to be fairly straightforward. 

When the tech left me to have me change into a gown before surgery, I decided it was easier to just pump in the pre-op bay and ask permission later. I had pretty much finished by the time the nurse came to start my IV. Then Chad took the milk and the pump parts when they wheeled me off. 

The anesthesiologist also did a great job, meaning that I don’t remember anything after the 4mg of Versed until I woke up post-op with just enough energy to ask for the time (11:30ish), for some ice, and whether I could pump again. I don’t remember the answer because I think I fell back asleep.

After the brain surgery, what was your recovery process like? Did you still try to pump or breastfeed?

I was in the hospital for 5 days. I had a really bad headache for most of that time, and also developed something called "diabetes insipidus" as a complication of the surgery. It's a condition of the pituitary gland where you basically have to urinate constantly. I took medication for a while to help with those symptoms and then fortunately my pituitary recovered a couple months later. So I'm not on any medication anymore. 

I was also still breastfeeding at the time of surgery, so I pumped constantly while in the hospital. I took a total of three weeks off work where I mostly just ate, slept, and fed the baby, and then jumped right back into residency. 

Brain scan showing a tumor or cyst on my pituitary

MRI pictures after surgery on the top, compared to the original pictures on the bottom. On the left you can see the black cyst is almost completely gone. The gray squiggly stuff now filling that space is my pituitary. On the right the bright stuff where the cyst used to be is the fat graft. Above that, the black mustache-shaped line is my no-longer-compressed optic chiasm.

This all sounds insanely challenging. Honestly, how did you manage?

I couldn't have managed alone! My husband and family were very supportive. My mom and dad took care of my daughter for the whole week when I was in the hospital, and then I also stayed at my parents house during part of my recovery period. My sister brought us food and was actually the one to pick me up from the hospital. And after we went home, my husband took the baby a lot of the time so that I could sleep.

How has motherhood, with this experience in particular, changed you (if at all)?

It’s made me a lot more aware that I’m not just taking care of myself anymore. That there is a whole separate human being who is my responsibility and whose life would be completely changed if, God forbid, I had had a major complication with surgery. It has been another reminder that our lives are finite and uncertain, and has made me appreciate all the more every moment and every day that I have with my family.

Tell us more about your support system.

As mentioned above, my husband and our extended families have been super supportive throughout everything. My residency program was also wonderfully flexible in giving me as much time off as I needed to deal with everything.

Family Medicine Doctor wearing her baby at a hospital

Me & Theia at work!

Any advice for new moms struggling with their own health challenges post-partum?

Just take one day at a time, and don't try to do it alone! 

Reach out for help from family, friends, local churches, whatever your support system is.

Don't feel like you're being a bad mom if you can't take care of your kids all the time. You need to keep yourself healthy also so that you can be there for your kids in the future. 

If you could do ONE thing over again, if anything, what would it be?

Have kids sooner! We didn't start trying until we'd been married almost 6 years, and now it's hard to remember what we did before having Theia. 

My husband and I worried that we wouldn't be able to explore and do other activities once we had a kid, but really we just take her everywhere and she makes the experiences even better. 

How are you doing health wise today?

I am so blessed to have recovered fully from the surgery with no long-term problems. And we are actually expecting our second child in November 2020! 

Mom and Dad and baby showing ultrasound of baby two


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This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Kudos.

    About the author

    I’m Dr. Lizzy Wei McIntosh. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, OH, studied nuclear engineering and pre-med at MIT, then did a MD/MPH 5 year degree at SUNY Upstate Medical University. I moved to Columbus, OH for family medicine residency at Grant Medical Center, with anticipated graduation on Aug 26, 2020. This September, l’ll be starting full-time outpatient primary care with Licking Memorial Health Systems in Johnstown, OH!

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