Saturday, November 26, 2011

Silver Spotlight ~ Dawn Gumbel-Venturi

Have you ever been told you were an inspiration?

Just recently I was told that I was. Funny, I never thought of myself as an inspiration, so imagine my surprise when I was asked to tell my story.

At age forty six, I was dealing with many things. Mid-life crisis, peri-menopause, over weight, depression and never-ending headaches. It was also the year of my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and my husband believed he had the perfect cure to cheer me up ~ a trip to Italy. It would be our first vacation, EVER! We never even had a honeymoon. I have to admit, it was something I anxiously looked forward to.

That was in February of 2007. Little did I know that the next few months would change my life forever. By April, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that my headaches were getting worse and it affected my overall health. I went to several doctors including a pulmonary specialist. He insisted I get an upper respiratory cat scan from chest to head. The next day I received a phone call from him, asking if I had a neurologist and that an MRI of my head is recommended. Lucky for us, I have a fantastic neurologist who helped my mother-in-law months before. A day later I was in his office for my first MRI. Another day or so later, he sat down with me and my husband and gently explained that I had a brain tumor the size of a hazelnut just below my right frontal lobe, pushing into the back of my sinuses. He referred to it as a meningioma.

Relieved to know that my pain wasn’t imaginary, yet scared out of my mind because ten years earlier my father died of brain cancer, I asked, “What now?” The doctor was warm and very empathetic. He gave me the name of two neurosurgeons that he highly recommended. I left his office ~ numb. Two days later we sat in the office of Dr. Mark Mittler, A renown neurosurgeon famous for working with children. Perfect for someone like me, an adult with a child-like attitude. With a plastic, 3 dimensional model of a human brain, he set out to explain where the tumor was located and we watched as he took apart the plastic pieces to show us. I remember saying, “I need to know every detail involved with the surgery.” He explained about the incision, the craniotomy, the removal of the right frontal lobe, the removal of said tumor and how he would put me back together again then put a plate in my head for easy access ~ in case he needed to go back in. I turned to my husband and said, “I guess our vacation plans have to change.” My husband looked at me as if he couldn’t believe what I said. He must’ve thought, how could she be thinking of a vacation at a time like this. The doctor then asked, “When were you planning this vacation?” I explained about our plans for the summer and he smiled, “I think it’s a wonderful idea. You should go and have fun. When you return we can take care of you.”

I spent the next few months pretending like nothing was wrong. Pushing my headaches aside, I continued my work at school. My vacation was my focal point. We rarely talked about the surgery scheduled in September, and I secretly put my affairs in order ~ just in case. Once we were on vacation, things seemed surreal. I remember walking into all these marvelous ancient citadels and soaking up history. The climax was my entrance into the Vatican. I’m not a very religious person, but somehow one cannot help but feel
the calm and spirituality within the walls of this marvelous sanctuary. I felt as if my life was about to change in a good way. I left Rome feeling renewed. Once we were home I spent the following 10 days reflecting on my life. I remember looking at photos of our vacation and I could hardly recognize the scowling old woman with pain written on her face. How on Earth was my family dealing with all this? That’s when I cried.
Just before entering the OR. Dr. Mittler assured me, “I’ll be with you every step of the way. My face will be the last one you’ll see when you go to sleep and when you awaken it’ll be the first you’ll see.” I don’t know why, but I responded with, “...that’s good. It’s a pleasant face.” He smiled. I tried not to cry and jokingly asked, “When you’re stitching me back up, could you pull my skin taut on my forehead? I won’t mind losing some of my frown lines.” I remember him laughing gently as he squeezed my hand and stepped aside to allow the anesthesiologist to do his job.

I had gone into the OR with shoulder length, dark brown hair, a wrinkled forehead and a bundle of mixed emotions. I emerged several hours later with no hair, looking like Frankenstein who’d gone several rounds with a prized boxer and feeling ~ oddly serene. I remember waking up to the sound of my name. I didn’t feel pain at all. Dr. Mittler smiled at me and said, “You have some very special visitors.” My family was suddenly by my bedside and that’s when Dr. Mittler said those wonderful words I’ll never forget, “She’s doing wonderfully and the tumor was benign.” At that moment I felt exhilarated. It might have been the pain meds, but I think it was something deeper.

Within three days I was home recuperating. I experienced a temporary short term memory loss and weakness of my left side, which allotted me valuable gym time. The only permanent loss is my sense of smell in my right nostril, those unsightly frown lines (Thank you Dr. M.) and my overly color-processed hair. Not bad, huh?

Four weeks later, I attended my baby brother’s wedding wearing a short, dark wig, a layer of foundation to cover my bruising and I had to use a cane to keep me upright. But I was happy. The healing process took quite a bit of time afterwards, and during that time I gained a bright new outlook on life, which I embrace every day. I wake in the morning with gratitude and go to bed every night grateful. It’s been four years with a clean bill of health. With my renewed zest for life, I’m doing things right. I try to exercise regularly and eat healthy. My weight has gone down considerably and even though I’m still going through my changes, I’m able to smile and shake off any blue feelings I get. As for my hair ~ it’s grown in beautifully and completely hides my scar. It’s a lovely, multi-shade of gray, and I love it. I’m quite content with the way I am now, healthy, confident and ready to tackle whatever comes my way. I like to believe I was given a marvelous gift ~ a gift of a second chance, and I’m not going to blow it!


  1. Dawn - thank you for sharing your very moving story … you actually brought tears to my eyes. It must have been so scary to have gone through all that you described but you really are an example to us all. We use the word inspirational a lot here in G&P - and rightly so, because everyone is – but this takes it to a much higher level! You are beautiful both outside and inside and I am so glad I met you on FB! :)

  2. What a beautiful story. I only wish more people would go with their gut and get checked out when they don't feel "right". And I love your hair! :)

  3. Thank you for sharing your story - I am grateful it had such a wonderful ending. Best wishes!

  4. Wow! Dawn, thank you so much for sharing this. Not sure I could have gone off on my vacation. I would have been GET IT OUT NOW. How incredibly strong of you. A reminder to slow down and enjoy the pleasures of life even in .. .actually, *especially* in times of stress and fear.

  5. Beautiful, the story and you! Thanks for sharing it!