Chance Visit to 49ers Training Camp Leads to Life-saving Brain Surgery

08.26.2011

Sharon Tong's chance encounter with a Stanford Hospital & Clinics representative at a football game led to the help she needed at the moment she needed it most.

Sharon Tong's medical journey began with a small thing, as many do: She took a taste of frozen yogurt and thought it was a bad batch.

A few days later, another small thing a chance visit to the San Francisco 49ers football training camp would set in motion quick care for a brain tumor that had begun to erode Tong's health.

At that visit to the training camp, Tong met Rosie Flores, a Stanford Hospital & Clinics Department of Neurosciences employee who was there to share information about the hospital. Stanford Hospital is the 49ers official health care partner. As part of that sponsorship, medical staff from Stanford are part of the 49ers training camps each August.

Just a few minutes earlier, Tong had listened to a voicemail from her doctor about the results of an MRI she'd had earlier that day. As a former nurse, she listened with special sensitivity to his request that she come in the next day for another MRI. Tong was pretty certain that something of real concern was visible in that first test.

She'd walked around the camp that afternoon, her thoughts filled with anxiety and fear. Then she caught sight of the Stanford Hospital booth and she headed there. Her first question to Flores: "Do you happen to know any good brain surgeons? I might need one," she said. 

Tong was expecting Flores to look at her with a 'That's a strange question' expression on her face. Instead, Flores answered, "As a matter of fact, I do. We have quite a few good neurosurgeons.  If you have a tumor, you want to see the best of the best."

"She gave me her card and told me to email her," Tong said. The next day, Tong's physician told her she had a brain tumor – one he thought didn't need immediate removal, but one that should be seen by a neurosurgeon.  She mentioned Stanford to him and he told her he didn’t think she'd be able to get in to see someone there for months and that the hospital only took rare, exotic cases he would look for someone local, he said.

In the days before that visit, Tong's symptoms, which began with her inability to taste sweetness, had expanded to include saltiness. And she'd begun to be very tired, frequently dozing off. "I was really feeling horrible," she said. Then, finally, she came to that moment when her doctor called with the results of the second MRI, and identified her tumor as a meningioma. "If you have to have a brain tumor," her doctor said, in the classic good news-bad news tradition, "this is the kind to get."

"I'm sitting there, floored," Tong said. "I didn't know what to do next, but I found Rosie's card and I thought, 'She might not remember me, but maybe I should email her.'"

"He was so kind and so gracious," Tong said of her physician, Steven Chang, MD (right). "He just laid out the information without pushing me to do anything. He was very compassionate."

Flores has worked at Stanford since she was 19, almost half her life now. Her grandmother was a healer, she said, "and I really empathize with people who are sick. I want to do everything I can to help them. After I met Sharon, thoughts of her were constantly in my mind, and I fervently hoped that she would follow up with me." And Flores knows that Stanford's neurosurgeons work on all sorts of tumors. 

Rather than months of waiting, Tong's trajectory to Stanford took minutes. She sent her email to Flores at 2:38 pm; one minute later, Flores forwarded it on to Alison Kerr, director of business development for Stanford's Department of Neurosciences. Three minutes later, Tong received an email from Kerr saying she was forwarding Tong on to neurosurgeon Steven Chang, MD, director of Stanford's Neuromolecular Innovation program. The first thing the very next morning, Chang's nurse coordinator called Tong to offer her an appointment with Chang at noon that same day. 

Tong, the mother of five children under 11, and her husband needed a few more days to arrange to make the trip to Stanford from their home in Paradise, a small town in the Sierra foothills about four hours' drive from the Bay Area. So, it was 10 days after her accidental meeting with Flores that Tong sat down with Chang. "He was so kind and so gracious," Tong said. "He just laid out the information without pushing me to do anything. He was very compassionate." That Chang would see her so soon, and during the lunch hour, still makes Tong choke up at that kindness.

Even though the tumor was not immediately life-threatening, Chang said he would not recommend just leaving it alone because her symptoms would gradually increase in severity. She might lose her vision, he said, or her ability to walk. "I don't want you to come in worse," he said.

Chang, co-director of Stanford's CyberKnife program, told Tong that she could choose either radiation with the CyberKnife or surgery. Tong chose the latter. "I wanted my tumor to be tested to determine if it was cancerous or benign," she said. "And, I just wanted to get it all done," she said. "I didn't want it lingering in the back of my head. As a nurse, I wasn't afraid of surgery and I trusted Dr. Chang."

Another 10 days later, Chang removed the 1.6 cm tumor in a four-hour surgery. It proved to be benign. Two days later, Tong went home. 

"A whole bunch of things had to line up," Tong said, "getting tickets to the 49ers camp, meeting Rosie Flores, having a compassionate surgeon who reads an email. People at Stanford went above and beyond to give me exemplary care—care and compassion and emotional support at every step."

All of those lucky connections, from one person to another, are the sort of serendipities that keep Tong's faith strong, and make her believe that some things just don't happen by chance.

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Recently, Stanford asked Tong to be a co-moderator of a new meningioma support group at Stanford. Its first meeting is Sept. 1. For more information, email Jackei Lo at JLo@stanfordmed.org or visit stanfordhospital.org/meningiomasupport
 

By Sara Wykes

About Stanford Hospital & Clinics 

Stanford Hospital & Clinics, located in Palo Alto, California with multiple facilities throughout the region, is internationally renowned for leading edge and coordinated care in cancer, neurosciences, cardiovascular medicine, surgery, organ transplant, medicine specialties and primary care. Stanford Hospital & Clinics is part of Stanford Medicine, which includes Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford and the Stanford University School of Medicine. Throughout its history, Stanford has been at the forefront of discovery and innovation, as researchers and clinicians work together to improve health, alleviate suffering, and translate medical breakthroughs into better ways to deliver patient care. Stanford Hospital & Clinics: Healing humanity through science and compassion, one patient at a time. For more information, visit: StanfordHospital.org.

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