Getting a ranch mom back on her horse

A hit to the head got this tough Wyoming woman’s attention.
July 11, 2018
A few from Kay Schock's horse of Elk Mountain, Wyoming.
A view from horseback of the Schrocks’ ranch in Wyoming, with Elk Mountain serving as backdrop. Photo courtesy Kay Schrock.

A bonk on the head isn’t typically a stroke of luck, much less divine intervention. It sure was for Kay Schrock, though.

In late January, Schrock, 37, was helping her husband, Cliff, hook a snowblower to a tractor on a 14,000-acre ranch they work near Elk Mountain in Wyoming. They were using the 6-foot-long, 16-pound steel bar to lever the snowblower closer to the tractor. Schrock then leaned the digging bar against the snowblower and crouched to put in the pin to secure it to the tractor. The digging bar took advantage of its moment of freedom by allowing gravity to topple it. It caught Schrock’s noggin on the way down.

“Well, that hurt,” Schrock recalled.

Kay Schrock holds a digger bar
“A Ranch Mom” with the digger that started it all. Photo courtesy Kay Schrock.

Ranch life is tough. So is Schrock, who chronicles her ranch life on her blog “A Ranch Mom,” as well as on an Instagram account with 14,000 followers and counting. Still, Cliff wanted to take her to a doctor for a concussion check. She said she was fine.

A couple of days later, though, she woke up with a fever and Cliff won out. They drove the hour to Laramie, where an urgent care facility sent her on to Ivinson Memorial Hospital, a UCHealth affiliate. They did a CT scan.

The Schrocks went out for lunch and did some shopping while waiting for the results. Kay’s cell phone rang. The call was from Ivinson Memorial. She listened, trying to keep it together. When the call was over, she was quiet for a moment. Then she told Cliff that there was no concussion from the bar. But, she said, “they say I have a mass in my brain.”

An MRI later that day confirmed it to be a meningioma. The good news was that meningiomas are common, accounting for about one-third of all brain tumors, and, 95 percent of the time, not cancerous. They grow slowly, and they’re three times more common in women than men. They can, however, be dangerous as they grow and compress nerves, arteries and parts of the brain itself. In Schrock’s case, the meningioma was low at the base of the brain behind her right ear, pressing on her brain stem and cranial nerves.

The next week, Schrock saw a neurologist in Cheyenne. He told her the best doctors for her were at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

‘Critical location’

A couple of weeks later, she and Cliff sat across from UCHealth neurosurgeon Dr. A. Samy Youssef, director of Skull Base Surgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Youssef said he sees perhaps 250 patients a year with brain tumors where Schrock’s was. Generally, he doesn’t work alone: complex cases, often referred from hospitals across the region, are channeled through the biweekly Skull Base multidisciplinary conference. It brings together a multidisciplinary team of neurosurgeons, head and neck surgeons, otolaryngologists, ophthalmologists, oncologists, neuroradiologists, neuropathologists and radiation oncologists to consider care paths for tumors whose impacts extend across specialties.

Schrock’s case was straightforward. Leaving the meningioma in place wasn’t an option, and it was too big for radiation therapy. Surgery to remove it was the best way forward, Youssef told the Schrocks. The tumor was, he explained, “in a very critical location,” leaning on nerves important for hearing, balance, and facial movement and sensation.

Schrock rests post-surgery at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. Photo courtesy Kay Schrock.
Schrock rests post-surgery at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. Photo courtesy Kay Schrock.

Schrock’s hearing hadn’t been a problem, but she had, for a couple of years, had the occasional dizzy spell, and she would lose balance if she bent over. Her balance was off when she rode horses, too. She had attributed it to not riding enough to keep her muscles strong. Cliff had suggested she see a doctor about that, too. She had said she was fine. Then came the digging bar incident.

“I guess God had to get my attention somehow,” Schrock quipped.

Youssef performed the four-hour surgery to remove the tumor on Feb. 21, a Wednesday. There were no complications, and an MRI confirmed that Youssef had removed all of the tumor. Schrock was on her way home by Friday.

She remains grateful for the work of the UCHealth care team. She will have annual MRIs to make sure the tumor doesn’t come back. But otherwise, she’s back with her family at the ranch — and back riding horses, her balance restored. Quite simply, she said, “Life is normal.”

About the author

Todd Neff has written hundreds of stories for University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth. He covered science and the environment for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and has taught narrative nonfiction at the University of Colorado, where he was a Ted Scripps Fellowship recipient in Environmental Journalism. He is author of “A Beard Cut Short,” a biography of a remarkable professor; “The Laser That’s Changing the World,” a history of lidar; and “From Jars to the Stars,” a history of Ball Aerospace.