“Be Your Own Advocate and Don’t Stop Fighting”

Rebecca Menachem was not making things up. By age 12 she had made so many trips to the school nurse complaining of headaches that, as she recalls now, “everyone thought I was faking sicknesses to go home.” But her migraines were real, and eventually the nurse at her school in Syosset, New York, recommended that she see a neurologist and have an MRI.

The scan revealed the presence of an arachnoid cyst, but doctors assured her that it was not dangerous and was not the cause of her migraines. They told her to ignore it – that the alternative was invasive surgery to remove it, but that it wasn’t necessary. Her parents did take her to see a neurosurgeon, but with other doctors telling her the cyst was not causing the headaches they were not convinced that surgery was necessary. At 12, Rebecca certainly agreed: She remembers that the first time she heard the neurosurgeon say the words “brain surgery” she felt so much anxiety that she asked her parents if she could sit outside for the rest of the appointment.

Rebecca suffered from migraines throughout high school, and as she moved on to college they grew worse. She remembers that on most days she either had a headache, was throwing up, or both. The symptoms crept further and further into her everyday life and started to affect her grades and her social life. She says she couldn’t go out with friends much because of the headaches, which also caused her to miss classes. Her grades dropped and her parents, who were not there to see the severity of her symptoms, assumed that all stemmed from her partying like a typical college student.

Rebecca explored as many options as she could to stop her migraines. “I went gluten free, dairy free, sugar free, tried literally every headache pain medication on the market,” she says. “I tried  acupuncture, laser treatments, chiropractors, immune therapy, nose sprays, allergy sprays, allergists — I went to every doctor in the book—it was exhausting.” At one point during her sophomore year she actually scheduled herself for surgery to remove the arachnoid cyst, but she backed out. “I didn’t have any connection with the surgeon,” she remembers.

Time passed but nothing changed for Rebecca and the migraines continued. She graduated from college but her symptoms spilled over into her new career. She landed a job in Manhattan but felt sick every morning; the commute became impossible due to the severity of the headaches. Rebecca realized that her symptoms were taking control of her life—she knew she had to do something about it, and that once again she had to consider the possibility of brain surgery.

Dissatisfied with previous neurosurgeons she had looked into, Rebecca started a fresh search. She visited a neurologist who told her that her cyst could very well be the cause of all the symptoms that had been plaguing her. Reinvigorated and filled with hope, she did a search online that led her to the Weill Cornell Medicine Brain and Spine Center website, where she discovered a patient story (much like the one you’re reading). She found it so similar to hers that she knew she had to see the neurosurgeon in the story: Dr. Mark Souweidane. She made an appointment the following week.

At that first visit, Dr. Souweidane asked Rebecca: “How did you do in school?” Rebecca’s parents laughed, but the question resonated with Rebecca. Dr. Souweidane’s expertise in arachnoid cysts gave him the insight to know they often create problems with learning. He showed them the MRI that showed how Rebecca’s cyst had grown since her first scan years earlier. Not only was it larger, it was pressing on a part of the brain involved in memory, and where pressure cause memory loss.

Rebecca felt validated—after all this time, the cyst had indeed been responsible for the symptoms. She asked Dr. Souweidane what he would do if it were his own child who had the cyst. “It would have been out a long time ago,” he said. Once she heard that, she decided that she would entrust him with her care.

Dr. Mark Souweidane & Therese Haussner, PA-C

As the date of the surgery approached, Rebecca had some fears and questions, which is when she discovered that Dr. Souweidane is not a one-man show. Rebecca speaks fondly of his physician assistant, Therese Haussner, saying, “Therese was there every step of the way.” All Rebecca’s questions —at any hour of the day or night — were answered. Therese walked Rebecca through the entire process and made her and her family even more comfortable for choosing Dr. Souweidane.

The day of the surgery happened to be the biggest snowstorm of 2017, so Rebecca and her family booked a hotel nearby the hospital. The night before the surgery, Rebecca sat on the couch with her sister and ate a whole basket of Edible Arrangements while they watched the season finale of “The Bachelor.” After a night of emailing Therese and trying to relieve her stress, Rebecca finally slept. The next morning, she remembers, “I woke up throwing up—I’m not sure if it was the anxiety or the Edible Arrangement, but either way it made me very worried for the surgery!”

Once she was at the hospital, though, Dr. Souweidane came in and took her hand and she immediately felt more at ease. Rebecca was ready to face her fears; she was administered anesthesia and finally had the brain surgery she had dreaded for so long.

When she awoke she felt completely at ease, knowing she was going through everything Dr. Souweidane and Therese had explained to her. After one night of discomfort she felt better; she went back to work part-time after two weeks and was up to full time by three weeks. She describes herself as “back to normal” three months later.

Rebecca is now a 24-year-old graduate student working as a teacher’s aide as she finishes up her degree. Unlike her undergraduate days, she wakes up every day without a headache and lives a normal life — going to school and hanging out with friends, unhindered by migraines and sickness. She thanks Dr. Souweidane and Therese for giving her a new life, saying, “Find a doctor you can trust... be your own advocate and don’t stop fighting.”

Weill Cornell Medicine Neurological Surgery 525 East 68 Street, Box 99 New York, NY 10065 Phone: 866-426-7787