Adventurous and independent from an early age, Kim Edwards wouldn’t have thought twice about driving cross-country to hike a mountain with her friends. She has always had an adventurous personality. But about four years ago, her friends and family noticed her personality had drastically changed.
Edwards had lost her ambition — and she seemed to be the only one who didn’t notice.
“She stopped going skiing and really anything outdoors. She wasn’t interested in going on hikes. She slept a lot,” explained her older sister, Chrysanne Grund. “What we saw in her was very consistent with depression.”
Though they were concerned, those closest to her attributed her “deep funk” to her divorce and the challenges of being a 40-something mother to a young child.
“I remember when she moved into her first apartment (after the divorce), there was this cool little gym there by the pool,” said Kathy Sargent, Edwards’s childhood friend. “The Kim I knew for decades would have said, ‘OK, I need to get in gear, quit wallowing, and hop on that treadmill and get my life back.’ There was none of that.”
Meanwhile, Edwards was experiencing crippling migraines that had been on-going for years and had started to notice her eyesight was failing.
Pulling into her garage “was a very narrow fit, and I hit the side of the wall with my car,” she recalled.
The aha moment
After the garage incident, Edwards decided to visit her eye doctor.
“He said, ‘Cover your right eye and tell me what you can see on the barn,’” Edwards said. “I said, ‘I can’t see a barn at all. What are you talking about?!’”
He told Edwards he wasn’t sure what was going on but would help her find out. He referred her to a retinologist, who ordered an MRI from UCHealth.
The frontal lobe
The brain’s frontal lobe controls important cognitive skills, such as emotional expression, problem-solving, memory, language and judgment. It’s the “control panel” of our personality and ability to communicate.
When a benign tumor — called a meningioma — forms on the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord just inside the skull, it can push on the frontal lobe, restricting its ability to function property, said Dr. Lars Widdel, a neurosurgeon with UCHealth in northern Colorado.
It also displaces the nerves that affect vision. And therein lay the answer: Edwards had a baseball-sized tumor growing in her head.
“Kim had always been a sarcastic and funny person, never depressing or a negative person,” Grund said. “The tumor so clearly explained her personality change.”
The brain tumor
Meningiomas are usually slow-growing and noncancerous — Kim’s had probably been growing for about 10 years. If small enough, Widdel said, they can usually be addressed through focal-pinpoint radiation. This process doesn’t remove the tumor but prevents it from further growth and is highly effective, he said.
But when a tumor reaches the size of Edwards’s and is causing symptoms, radiation can have very negative side effects. Surgery is the preferred route.
“With the tumor’s location, it has the potential to be life-threatening,” Widdel said. “It can block the flow of normal spinal fluid to the brain and cause seizures or death.”
Kim was lucky she never had a seizure, but the tumor was laying on her optic nerve rendering her blind in the left eye. And though Edwards said she didn’t notice, it was also crushing the olfactory nerve hindering her sense of smell.
To prepare her for the operation, Widdel put Edwards on a high dose of steroids to reduce swelling and relax her brain. He scheduled Edwards’s surgery for about three weeks later.
Team Kim, ready for brain tumor surgery
With a room full of support from family and friends — all wearing red “Team Kim” shirts — Edwards headed into surgery on the morning of Oct. 25, 2018 at UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland.
To gain access to the tumor, Widdel made an incision from ear to ear over the top of her head to remove the front section of the skull.
Because the tumor was already putting pressure on the brain, the team worked from the inside out, Widdel said. Using an ultrasonic aspirator — a device that uses low-frequency ultrasonic vibrations to break up tissue while simultaneously suctioning them away — Widdel removed the center of the tumor, causing its borders to collapse. This technique freed up space to remove the perimeter of the tumor without adding extra pressure on the brain.
The best technology for brain tumor surgery
A number of high-tech tools helped Widdel navigate the intricacies of Edwards’s surgery. Before surgery, a special imaging tool took a high-resolution MRI of Edwards’s brain and turned it into a 3D road map. This road map was loaded into a robotic visualization system. Widdel then preprogrammed routes to guide him to the target.
This function, along with the use of a foot pedal to control the unique micro-inspection tool, means that Widdel doesn’t have to remove his tools from the brain during surgery. This, he said, leads to fewer risks and better outcomes.
In Edwards’s case, Widdel’s technology was especially important because he had to access the tumor from both sides.
“There is a large vein in the center of the head,” he said. “I needed to preserve that as much as possible, so I worked a little on the left and then the right.”
The microscope allowed him to lock in his position, so that when he switched sides, he was able to return to exactly where he’d left off earlier.
Surgery lasted 10 hours but the most tedious work came in the last few hours, he said. After the tumor collapsed, making more room for Widdel to see, he had to address the back end of the tumor while preserving all the small vessels it had pushed out as it grew.
“Good visualization is important, and it’s why this microscope is key,” he said.
Moving past traditional technology for brain tumor surgery
Brain surgeons have used surgical microscopes for decades. But in addition to navigational and magnification capabilities, the new technology allows Widdel to see around corners and difficult angles, into blind spots and behind tissue. This is unlike traditional microscopes, which only provide a straight-line view, said Tracey Anderson, nurse practitioner with UCHealth Brain and Spine Clinic in northern Colorado.
“The new technology allows us to always know where we are in relation to vessels and other structures,” she said.
Although it wasn’t necessary in Edwards’s case, many patients also benefit from the technology’s ability to use filters that distinguish cancerous tumors from the surrounding normal brain tissue.
Post brain tumor surgery
About 12 hours after Team Kim had watched her being wheeled into surgery, they were again by Edwards’s side in the ICU, where they took turns staying with her. The first night Edwards was intubated and restrained so she couldn’t accidentally pull out the tubes and IVs.
But at 2 a.m., Edwards awoke and told her sister she could see. And almost like a light switch, Edwards seemed to have her spunk back, Grund said, adding that a perfect example was later that day when Edwards “gave her the middle finger.”
“It was a traumatic day for everyone, and seeing her in that position was scary and awful,” Grund said. “Edwards was trying to tell me something, but because of the tube (in her mouth) she had to write it down.”
However, the pen Grund had given Edwards didn’t work. Grund found a new pen and Edwards proceeded to express her frustration by instead drawing a “picture” for her sister.
“That’s when I knew — she’s back,” Grund said.
Instant change, instant gratitude
Edwards said later that the relief from removing the tumor was immediate.
“It instantly felt like my brain was getting back to work,” she said. “It almost felt like a hamster running on a wheel. It was a wonderful feeling of relief.”
Though she didn’t recover her sense of smell, her vision returned to normal.
“You can really feel that you are in the presence of greatness around Dr. Widdel,” Kim said. “And I had the most kind and compassionate nurses who helped me through some of the worst nights ever. All these people will never be forgotten.
“What is a normal day of work for them was the worst day of my life, and they stood by my side.”
The return of ‘Kim’
The next weeks were grueling for both Edwards and her two sisters, who alternated staying with Edwards to help care for her in the weeks following surgery. Edwards battled with a regimen of large pain pills, steroids and other medications, as well as dizziness and other side effects of the large “hole” her brain had to fill in. Her sisters battled with a very difficult patient — going as far as hiding Edwards’s medication in yogurt to get her to take it — but they can joke about it now.
“I could have never have done this part without them,” Edwards said of her sisters. “They were my heroes for doing that.”
Though her sisters say that caring for Edwards was like “caring for an infant that never sleeps” who has “the appetite of a professional wrestler” because of the steroids, seeing the old Kim shine through was worth every Snickers wrapper they had to pick up off the floor.
“I was so happy to see her sound like her old self again,” Grund said, “I was out there two weeks following her surgery to care for her, and she was talking to her son.”
Edwards’s son, Owen, is now 8.
“It struck me that she sounded like the mother — the Kim from a few years ago, not the Kim from two weeks ago — who was more positive and enthusiastic about life,” Grund said. “She was so happy and grateful after her surgery. Happy it had all worked out. Her recovery had very horrible moments for her but also moments of joy.
“I think she’s found her joy again in a lot of areas — as a parent, in her job and what she does — just in enjoying being outdoors in Colorado.”
Since the surgery, Edwards said she helped Owen learn how to ride a bike.
“A little late for him, probably because I didn’t make him do it,” Edwards said. “So, it was a big deal that he was finally riding on his own.”
Find the joy
Recently, on a sunny Colorado day, Edwards hopped into the two-ton white truck she uses to take readings from several water meters along the Munroe Canal near the Poudre Canyon northwest of Fort Collins. She had a stack of maps at her side and a tall pair of rubber boots behind her seat.
About two years before her surgery, Edwards had started working as a water accountant for the North Poudre Irrigation Company. Although she spends most of her time behind a computer punching numbers, her supervisor, Torin Thorsgard, gave her a route to inspect as an opportunity to get outside.
On this day, Edwards’s mapping app on her phone told her that her destination was on the right.
“This is how I know where I’m at — I chat with Google maps,” she said.
The tumor and surgery affected Edwards’s memory, but she still has great problem-solving skills and uses her strengths to compensate for her short term memory issues.
“My main task at work is to do the accounting, and I don’t have problems remembering that. It is in my long-term memory because I did it every day, and I wrote myself 10 pages of instructions on how to do it before I left for my surgery,” Edwards said.
However, it is much harder to remember new things that she does only occasionally, like checking meters. The work-around solution to remember these things is to write good notes, stay organized, make to-do lists and cross off what she’s has done, she said. And learning this skill has made all the difference for her at work.
“My (occupational therapist) said I’m smart enough to solve the world’s problems, I’m just not going to remember I did it the next day,” Edwards said, chuckling.
And in her free time, Edwards is back to being her adventurous self — as a mom, sister and friend.
What’s good for body is good for brain
Sargent was amazed how quickly the “Kimmy Kay fire” came back. It’s the witty, charismatic and adventurous characteristics that make Edwards such a pleasure to be around.
“There you were, 10 months after major brain surgery with the drive to run a 10K even though you thought it might be god-awful,” Kathy said.
Edwards not only finished the 10K FORTitude in Fort Collins over Labor Day weekend — she ran the whole way in a little more than an hour.
“I wanted to regain some balance back into my life and that is what running does for me,” Edwards said. “Like I am doing something good for my body and brain, and it relieves stress.”
And she’s incorporating running into her family life too, playing soccer with her son. They plan to do a bike/run duathlon together soon.
“I want to show him how important it is to take care yourself and have a strong body,” she said.
Now that’s the Kim Edwards everyone knew and loved — and feels so lucky to have gotten back.