As a freshman in college, Jessica Davis was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and met Dr. Alex Yu, a neurosurgeon. Yu immediately put her at ease about her tumor, which required surgery. His calm straightforward demeanor meant Davis felt comfortable coming to him for advice about school or life. Over the past eight years, her appointments involved more than updates on her brain.
When planning her April 2022 wedding, she needed someone to walk her down the aisle and she immediately knew who to ask.
“This an honor of a lifetime to be able to do this for someone and to have someone who does value you,” Yu, the vice chair of neurosurgery at Allegheny Health Network in Pittsburgh, told TODAY. “It reminds you that there’s obviously a purpose to life … And my purpose was to take care of her and walk her down the aisle.” Vision problems are sign of a brain tumor
As a freshman in college, Davis struggled to see the board clearly and wondered if she needed a stronger eye prescription. She visited an eye doctor, who noticed that her optic nerve looked enlarged, but he reassured her that it could simply be “a little extra drainage.” Still, he recommended Davis visit an eye specialist who ordered an MRI, which revealed the tumor, a grade two meningioma, a noncancerous brain tumor that forms in the brain or spine.
“That was a little different ballgame. I remember my mom being absolutely devastated,” Davis, 27, of Xenia, Ohio, told TODAY. “I remember me being like, ‘All right, let’s figure out what to do here.’”
Davis met with Yu soon after and she appreciated how much information he gave her. “He was very detailed, thorough (about) how surgery was going to go,” she said. “He explained everything and answered all my questions.”
In Davis’ case, the tumor obstructed blood flow, contributing to her vision problems.
“It was invading or pushing on a vein in her brain, which basically if you think about the brain, blood has to exit the brain. And if there’s a tumor blocking that, it builds up pressure inside the brain and, as a result of that, she came in with actually difficulty with vision,” Yu explained. “Basically, her tumor pushes on that vein, but it also invaded a part of her skull, too, so she had a little bit of a bump on her skull.”
At 19, Davis worried a lot about having her head shaved.
“That was a big thing for me,” she said. “He was like, ‘Jess it’s going to grow back. You don’t have to freak out.’”
But his calm way of addressing her concerns helped her feel less afraid.
“He was very confident,” she said. “(He made me feel) it was going to feel all right.”
While Yu was able to remove most of the tumor, he did have to leave a small piece because of its location. Surgery included replacing part of her skull with mesh.
“We removed the bone over the tumor and also removed the bone the tumor was invading … it’s not a viable bone,” Yu said. “We opened the dura covering the brain and once that’s opened up, we can see the tumor and basically what we do is carve out the inside of it. It collapses on itself.”
During recovery, Davis developed a complication, a blood clot that blocked blood flow in her brain.
“I remember waking up and my whole right side, I didn’t have any movement in it,” Davis said. “That moment I’m still going to say was one of my ‘ah’ moments. Oh gosh that moment is something you probably will never forget, I can say that.”
Yu then performed surgery to take out the clot.
“She was taken for a procedure where we remove the clot from the vein,” Yu said. “We’re trying to keep a vein open by thinning the blood, so it doesn’t clot off.”
Over the years, Davis regained movement in her right arm, but still has foot drop — an inability to lift the front of the foot because of muscle weakness or paralysis — and uses a brace to walk. She returned to college as soon as she could but struggled.
“My friends were awesome, but I felt like it was really hard to transition back,” she said. “I was still going through a lot mentally.”
Walking up and down the hills of the campus and carrying a backpack felt physically difficult. Grappling with the mental aspect of recovering from a brain tumor and paralysis was overwhelming, too. Then a few months after her original surgery, she started leaking spinal fluid and needed to undergo another surgery with Yu where he placed a shunt in her brain, so the fluid drained into her stomach.
“I did decide to transfer back home and take a little time off from school,” Davis said. “I really did focus more on my health.”
Every six months, Davis traveled to Pittsburgh to see Yu for an MRI to make sure her tumor wasn’t returning.
“As I got older, I feel like I’ve matured and suddenly find yourself growing closer and I would ask him for advice on school,” Davis said. “I felt like I could ask him for his wisdom … Nobody’s really gone to college in my family.”
Davis’ dad died of ALS in 2009 when she was in eighth grade. Yu and Davis became so close that after a few surgeries, she started jokingly asking if Yu would walk her down the aisle if she ever got married.
“He would probably say that I would never get married. Pretty much anybody would tell you that because I am very independent,” she said. “I’d be like, ‘If I ever do get married would you want to walk me down the aisle,’ and he said, “Of course.’”
Planning a wedding
While Davis joked that she wanted Yu to walk her down the aisle, she didn’t bring it up regularly and wasn’t sure if he’d remember. She worried about broaching the subject.
“He probably forgot about it. This was like six years down the road. I was like, ‘How do I ask him? Do I want to ask him? I feel like I would be embarrassed like what if he says no,’” Davis said. “Then I asked he and he goes, ‘Oh my gosh I thought you forgot about it.’”
Yu was “happy” to be asked and “It was a cool because he remembered.” It felt good to have her doctor by her side because he knew how far Davis had come in her recovery. She didn’t want to wear her brace to get married and she felt Yu truly understood what walking down the aisle without it meant to her.
“It was a dream come true,” Davis said.
Yu worried about performing his duties properly.
“I’ve never walked anyone down the aisle,” Yu said. “It was one of those moments where you feel the range of emotions. You feel grateful. You feel love and then at one point I was like, ‘All right, we can’t fall. We’ve got to get down the aisle.’”
Focusing on putting one foot in front of the other helped Yu.
“We just looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, let’s not fall today. We’re not going to trip,’” Yu said. “It’s been incredibly rewarding watching her grow and do what she always wanted to do, which is help other people.”
Davis works with people with developmental disabilities. When she reconnected with her husband, Robbie Davis, who was a former classmate of hers, she knew he could be the person she could marry because he never dwelled on what she’s been through in the past.
“He didn’t care that I had a limp, which I didn’t have to explain. Most people notice that and definitely pointed it out. It sounds weird but they do. They ask you all kinds of questions — and he never mentioned it,” Davis said. “He cared about the present and that’s a big thing.”
Davis hopes her story encourages people “to never give up hope.”
“If you keep focusing on the past, you’re never going to be happy,” she said. “It’s always going to be a part of you. But it’s hard to be happy if you just focus on the negativity.”
For Yu, he’s been impressed by Davis’ attitude even though she’s faced many health setbacks. Most recently, the tumor regrew and she’s undergoing radiation treatment to shrink it.
“It’s amazing to see her determination through all of this. It’s very easy for someone to get discouraged but she keeps pushing through,” Yu said. “It’s just amazing.”
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