Zachary Neel Media

My Story

A Lime Sized Curveball



Every teenager goes through a stage where they feel invincible. At the age of 21, I had never broken a bone in my body and never undergone any surgeries. I was untouchable. 

And then one day in November, my world changed...

It was then that I found out I had a brain tumor. After an extended period of time experiencing blurry vision when exercising, a couple of doctors appointments resulted in my undergoing an MRI and taking blood tests to make sure it wasn't anything serious. The blood tests came back negative, but the MRI showed what we never thought we would see; a lime-sized tumor classified as a Lower Cranial Nerve Schwannoma. 

The mass, which was later found to be benign, was growing off of my brainstem and had started to compress a number of nerves in my brain (resulting in the blurry vision), and needed to come out right away. Surgery was scheduled for Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 at OHSU in Portland, just 6 days after our discovery of the tumor. 

I felt like I was walking through a bad dream – a nightmare, at that. Although the prognosis was good and there was a clear roadmap to recovery, I found myself up against the biggest obstacle of my life. "I'm 21 years old," I would tell myself. "I shouldn't be going through brain surgery right now." 

"I am no longer invincible."

With the help of my very loving family, my girlfriend, and all of my closest friends, I went under the knife with a confidence that things would go smoothly. The 10-hour procedure was successful, and while they couldn't safely remove all of the tumor due to nerve encapsulation, recovery had begun. After 5 days in the hospital, I was discharged and would spend the next several weeks on the couch at home. As a result of being intubated for the lengthy surgery, I was diagnosed with a paralyzed vocal chord and could barely speak above a whisper. I attended voice therapy for several months, but I am still coping with the possibility of my voice never being 100% again. 

It was a very difficult time, physically trying to function as I was previously accustomed, and mentally trying to accept the fact that I might never be as healthy as I once was. 

In mid-January, I returned to school with slightly less energy and a softer voice than the prior term. It felt good to be back in my normal routine and easing back into the life I had built, and bit by bit, I felt like I was getting my life back. 

It was then that my world turned upside down once more. 

During my three-month check-up and MRI, the doctor found that the remaining piece of tumor left from the first surgery had grown quite a bit. Unsure of whether or not the growth was due to scar tissue forming around the mass or actual tumor growth, it was decided that more surgery was needed. Soon. 

On April 6th, 2016, I found myself back at OHSU. Back in a hospital gown being rolled down the hallway toward the Operating Room. 

This time around, things seemed more difficult. My family constantly offered words of encouragement, telling me "You have done this already. We know what recovery will be like and we aren't dealing with any unknowns this time around." While they were correct, it was that knowledge of being there before that made the second surgery more difficult to grasp. I knew what recovery was like. I knew the type of pain I was in for. I knew how much the first surgery had taken out of me, and I could only guess what another one would do to my long-term health. 

The second surgery was very successful. My surgeon was pleased with the amount of star tissue they had found rather than tumor growth, and almost all of the remaining tumor was removed. This time around, recovery was completely different. I had set a goal before surgery that I would beat my discharge time of 5-days from the first surgery; I was discharged in 3.5 days. 

I spent one day on the couch, but that was about all I could handle. My health was improving quickly and I was feeling like myself more and more every day. Hell, I played a round of golf just 10 days after surgery.

I am happy, I am healthy, and I am blessed to be here. 

Life often throws challenges at us that we may not find fair or just. There are people in this world who were dealt pocket aces and never had to worry about a thing. There are also people who woke up with 7-2 off-suit and are just trying to see the flop. I find myself somewhere in the middle. I have been blessed with a wonderfully loving family, a comfortable and happy childhood, and the means to go to college and pursue my dream of being a sports reporter. However, at a young age, I have also dealt with an obstacle that few will ever face.

After an array of fastballs and changeups, I found a curveball coming my way. It was a pitch I wasn't expecting, and I knew there was a possibility that I would swing and miss. But I still had to swing. I ended up making contact, and while we don't know how far the ball will travel, I know one thing for sure...

I hit it right in the sweet spot.