Pastor a 'miracle patient' after brain tumor surgery

Posted on 5/7/2018

Palmetto Health recognizes May as National Brain Tumor Awareness Month, a time to honor those living with a brain tumor and all those who have lost their lives.

One person who is now very aware of the havoc a brain tumor can cause is Dan Plunkett, a 71-year old pastor of a small church in Lamar.

Dan needed to get new glasses in order to renew his driver’s license and was in the middle of an eye exam when his optometrist noticed something amiss. A series of checks led Dan to Mark Robinson, MD, a Palmetto Health ophthalmologist, who ran an MRI and noticed a tumor behind Dan’s left eye. Promptly, he was sent to David Straus, MD, a neurosurgeon with Palmetto Health-USC Neurosurgery, who diagnosed Dan with meningioma.

 “The tumor was in a very difficult place on my optic nerve,” recalls Dan. “They were afraid it was going to continue to put pressure on my pituitary gland and my carotid artery. This was a benign tumor, but the pressure on my optic nerve was causing me to lose my sight, and it would have potentially grown to affect the other optic nerve.”

A craniotomy was required, where Dr. Straus surgically entered the skull near the eye to decompress the optic nerve and remove the tumor. “I felt good about the surgery and about the team Dr. Straus put together to deal with it,” says Dan. “It was a long surgery—10 hours—and initially we had good results.”

Soon after the procedure, however, a series of unforeseen complications struck Dan. He suffered issues with the circulation in his brain, necessitating an angioplasty to help the blood pump better. Then he suffered a mild stroke.

“He wasn’t waking up during this time,” says Dan’s wife, Lucy. “They weren’t sure exactly why, so they were regulating his blood sugars. As time went on, the longer he stayed in bed, there was the possibility of pneumonia.”

Dan ended up staying in the Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit (NSICU) for two and a half months while doctors and nurses worked diligently to stabilize him and bring him back.

“There were a lot of touch and go moments,” remembers Lucy, “but I had so much confidence in the people giving us care. Dr. Straus came in every day and checked on us, and our nurse, Maddie, was absolutely wonderful. On one of the most difficult nights she knew what needed to be done and came in and took control. She and some of the other nurses included us in their prayers, which was very important to us.”

Dan and Lucy once lived 20 years in Italy, a place they still hold dear to their hearts; and on New Year’s Eve, the NSICU nurses celebrated this time in their lives by playing Italian music all night long. Dan was not conscious, yet he responded to Maddie, according to Lucy, “Not by talking, but by squeezing her hand.”

When Dan finally came out of his coma, everyone was in for a shock when his first words were spoken in Italian. “The nurses were worried I may have cognitive damage, but Italian is almost like a first language for me.”

Today, Dan is doing well. While his sight is still impaired, it continues to improve as time goes on. In addition to coaching Junior Varsity soccer for Ben Lippen School, he has returned to his work as a pastor. “My wife has to type my messages in a large font, but I’m not going to let a little something like my vision keep me from doing what I love so much.”

At his one year follow up, Dr. Straus declared Dan his “miracle patient.” And recently the couple dropped in on the NSICU staff, presenting them with a large lasagna baked from scratch. “I didn’t remember them,” marvels Dan, “but they all knew me. It was a wonderful celebration.”

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