My name Eric and this is my acoustic neuroma story. I am a career firefighter married to a career police officer in North Carolina. Fingers crossed, my wife and I can retire together the same year in about five years. Like most other firefighters that I know and work with, I have a second job that I do on my days off. My second job is working as an arborist and includes tree pruning, tree removal, stump grinding, and tree planting. Doing this second job was what led to the discovery of my acoustic neuroma.
In March of 2017 I was performing tree removal for my brother-in-law in a nearby community. While cutting the stumps low to the ground I encountered a large mound of fire ants that I did not see. Needless to say, after the first several bites around my ankles I quickly came out of my boots and socks in record time! These bites took several months to completely heal and during this time, I began to experience what I describe as “elations” inside my head. Throughout the healing process I did not know if these feelings inside my head, which were sporadic and unpredictable, were related to the fire ant bites. Turns out they were not.
After visits to my primary care physician, dermatologist, cardiologist, and optometrist, I ended up in the office of a good friend of mine who is a well-known neurosurgeon. I have performed tree work for him in the past and his youngest son is also a firefighter in my department. He studied my case and decided it was best that I visit a neurologist for additional testing. While waiting for this appointment, he decided to perform an MRI of my brain. This is when he discovered the acoustic neuroma in my right inner auditory canal. He then referred me to a good friend of his named Calhoun Cunningham III who is an ENT surgeon in the Duke University Hospital System.
This referral turned out to be the best thing that I could have hoped for. When my wife and I began to research treatment for acoustic neuromas, three places continually popped up in the search engines that we were using. Those places were Johns Hopkins, The Mayo Clinic, and Duke University. I feel extremely fortunate and blessed to have been referred to someone at Duke which is less than 45 minutes from where we live. From the very beginning of my experience with Dr. Cunningham and ALL of his staff, I was treated like royalty. After the initial consultation and extensive hearing tests with Dr. Cunningham, I decided not to have surgery to remove the acoustic neuroma. The tumor was approximately 5mm x 10mm and was completely inside the inner auditory canal. At that time, I still had 60% to 80% hearing in my right ear and, if I elected to have it removed then, there was a 50% chance of completely losing my hearing in the right ear.
Fast forward to May of 2019 and unaware to me, things had begun to change. I was on an annual golf trip in Myrtle Beach with some good friends and rooming with an old high school classmate. To say that he was a loud snorer is a huge understatement! I had to use my ear buds and listen to music just to drown out this freight train. The ear bud in my left ear fell out during the night and I assumed that my music player had died. When I placed the ear bud back in my left ear, I could hear the music playing and quickly realized that I could not hear anything in my right ear. I knew at that moment that the tumor must have grown and affected my hearing on the right side.
I called Dr. Cunningham when I returned from my golf trip and scheduled another MRI and additional hearing tests. Sure enough, the tumor had grown in size to 7mm x 11mm and had come out of the inner auditory canal toward the brain. My wife and I agreed with Dr. Cunningham’s recommendation to remove the tumor. Because my hearing was now down to 4% in the right ear, and there was little chance to preserve it, Dr. Cunningham chose the translabyrinthine removal approach. This meant that I would lose my hearing forever in the right ear. For a 47-year-old firefighter who was less than five years away from retirement, this was a pretty scary thought. We scheduled surgery for January 2020.
We believe that Dr. Cunningham and his staff gave us worst case scenarios just to prepare us for what could happen during surgery and recovery from this procedure. This is where my story is different from most. Dr. Cunningham and Dr. Ali Zomorodi from Duke Neurosurgery removed my tumor on January 7th, 2020. The procedure went flawlessly, and I was walking in the NICU the very next morning. I did not have any of the post-surgery complications that they typically see after performing this procedure. There were no headaches, blurred vision, dizziness, tinnitus, or balance issues at all. To them, this was pretty remarkable.
I was discharged in less than a week and just over a month later, returned to work full-time as a firefighter. It is now May of 2020 and I have been back at work as a firefighter for almost 4 months and have also started performing tree work again. Based on the stories that my wife and I have read from other acoustic neuroma patients, I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am a blessed man. What I am most thankful for is the care, compassion, and treatment that I received from Dr. Cunningham and all of his staff. I was truly treated like a king from start to finish and like I was a part of their family. These are world-class providers who are at the pinnacle of their careers and who provide exceptional care. I could not have wished or dreamed for a better experience. To Hannah and Andrea who are my audiologists, Dr. Cunningham and Dr. Zomorodi who are my surgeons, and to the most wonderful and amazing nurse navigator on the face of the planet named Tricia, I could never, ever say thank you enough!