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Michaela Gasseling

Michaela faced a life-threatening brain tumor with severe symptoms just days after giving birth. Her complex surgery and swift recovery defied everyone's expectations.

December 15, 2023
Michaela pictured with her family outdoors

Michaela Gasseling and her husband raise cattle and crops on a homestead in western Nebraska with their four young children. In 2020, when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, Michaela started having headaches, balance issues and then she lost hearing in her left ear. Initially, she brushed them off as side effects of being days away from delivery — but instead of getting better after having the baby, Michaela’s symptoms got much worse. Bad enough for her husband, Matthew, to rush her to the emergency room.

“It was awful. The couple of days I did spend at home with my newborn, I was stuck in bed and Matthew would only bring me the baby when it was time to nurse. Afterwards he'd have to leave and shut the door because I was in so much pain,” Michaela said.

It soon became too much to bear. At the urging of their midwife and a family friend who is a registered nurse, Matthew took Michaela to the nearest hospital, more than an hour from their home. An MRI showed a large brain tumor and severe hydrocephalus (buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain).

Doctors would need to act fast to relieve the pressure. Michaela said the choice for where to do that was unanimous, “Everyone, even in the Scottsbluff Regional West Medical Center ER, just kept repeating over and over again, ‘[Swedish] is the best place for brain surgery.’ That it’s the best place in the whole Midwest to have brain surgery.”

It was too stormy for a medical helicopter, so Michaela was loaded in an ambulance overnight and driven the more than five hours to Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Colorado where she received intravenous steroids to reduce the swelling. She responded well to the medicines but a far greater challenge was ahead: Michaela’s three doctors, Donald Frei, Peter Syre and Eddie Tsvankin, prepared her for what they initially believed would be a 12 to 16-hour procedure.

The woman who had never had any kind of surgery before was about to go under for a life-saving operation when she was seven days postpartum.

Michaela says her care team’s compassion made all the difference, “I remember everyone just made me feel so calm. From the nurses to the transport people to my radiology tech and my physical therapist… everyone was so nice. I'm from small town Nebraska, and I felt like I was in a small hospital where I wasn't just one of thousands of patients, which is incredible.”

Dr. Frei was up first to embolize (use a catheter to cut off the blood supply to) Michaela’s tumor. Then Drs. Syre and Tsvankin got to work removing it. Because of the tumor’s size, connected tissues and blood vessels—the surgeons were prepared for the long haul, but amazingly completed the procedure in a fraction of the time. “We got to see God work a miracle. It took just four hours. I don't know if you could ever call brain surgery easy, but I think it went much better than everyone was expecting,” Michaela said.

Before surgery, the doctors had prepared Michaela and her husband for the possibility of side effects or lasting damage to her ability to balance, swallow or breathe because of the pressure the tumor was putting on certain areas of her brain. Again, another miracle: Michaela was quick to breathe on her own coming out of anesthesia. Within hours of major surgery, she was up and walking by herself with no balance, breathing or any other complications.

“It was pretty shocking, I think. I didn't really have expectations. It's hard to predict, going in, how long you’ll be in the hospital. We talked about possibly needing physical therapy and occupational therapy and all those kinds of things, but I was doing so well they moved me out of the ICU,” Michaela said.

With a brand-new baby at home, Michaela says she was more worried about being able to successfully breastfeed than the outcome of her surgery. From her very first moments at Swedish, her care team put together a plan to support developing her milk supply. A nurse pumped for Michaela while she was still under anesthesia and then again when she was transferred to the neuro ICU. “The next time I needed to pump, I was already awake. They brought me a breast pump from Labor and Delivery and everyone went above and beyond to help so I’d be able to nurse again when I got back home. I know one of my nurses spent hours with a pharmacist trying to figure which medications would be best to be discharged on so I could get back to breastfeeding as soon as possible. It was such a blessing,” Michaela said.

Three days after brain surgery, Michaela said it was by the grace of God she was able to walk out of the hospital with her husband.

After an emotional reunion at home and several follow-up visits to ensure her noncancerous tumor doesn’t come back, Michaela says her experience gave her a new perspective, “I wouldn't wish this on anyone, but it's also been kind of funny trying to explain how this was one of the best things that ever happened to me. After being away, getting woken up in the middle of the night was just the best thing ever. Because of what Swedish did, I got to wake up and feed my baby and be with her. For that, I’ll be grateful for the rest of my life and so will my family.”

Learn more about the advanced treatments provided by the Swedish Neuro Network and the exceptional care in our Labor and Delivery department.

Michaela pictured with her family
Michaela pictured holding her baby in black & white
Michaela pictured with her family - selfie in snow gear
Michaela pictured with her baby
December 15, 2023
Swedish Medical Center

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