On Oct. 19, 2020, Vivian Cortes-Addeo’s life changed forever when the vehicle she was driving was hit from behind by a fast-moving car. That accident set in motion a series of events that put Cortes-Addeo’s health in the spotlight, and uncovered answers to a medical mystery that had been long plaguing her.
For years prior to the accident, Cortes-Addeo had experienced symptoms that had gone undiagnosed. She had ringing in her ears and numbness in her face. She had unexplained weight gain and tingling in her hands. Doctors attributed these symptoms to hormones or stress.
Then, the accident happened. Thinking she was suffering from whiplash, Cortes-Addeo went to the emergency room, where X-rays showed what looked like a tiny fracture in her back. She was given muscle relaxers and ibuprofen and sent home to recover.
“Nothing helped,” Cortes-Addeo recalls. “I felt awful and wasn’t getting better.”
At a friend’s recommendation, Cortes-Addeo saw another doctor who recommended an MRI. That test revealed a tumor on Cortes-Addeo’s spine. She was referred to Hani Malone, MD, a neurosurgeon, specializing in spine surgery, at Scripps Clinic. With expertise in minimally invasive surgical techniques, Dr. Malone quickly proved himself to be the right person for the job.
“As soon as I met Dr. Malone, he reassured me that everything was going to be OK,” Cortes-Addeo says. “He took the time to explain everything to me in detail. Dr. Malone described the tumor, its positioning and what to expect during surgery. After we met, my intuition told me I was in good hands with him,” she continues.
“He was so supportive, and he told me that although I was handling everything with a smile, it is fine to be emotional. I told him I had no tears to let out about it. I just wanted it fixed.”
Due to the urgency, Dr. Malone had her surgery scheduled at Scripps Green Hospital within a few weeks.
“Because of the tumor, my spinal cord didn’t have much more to give,” she says.
“Spinal tumors, in general, are fairly rare, and they can be technically challenging,” says Dr. Malone. “Additionally, the size and location of Vivian’s tumor made it especially dangerous.”
“The good news was that Vivian’s was a meningioma, a tumor on the thin membrane that protects the spinal cord, and those are typically benign,” Dr. Malone says. “The bad news was that it was in a delicate spot in the cervical spine. That can be difficult to remove and can cause paralysis.”
Further complicating things, the tumor was ventral, meaning toward the front of her spine.
“We usually approach these surgeries from the back and try to put as little pressure on the spinal cord as possible,” he says. “Finally, Vivian’s right nerve root, which controls her dominant hand, was draped over the tumor. That posed a lot of challenges to get to the spinal cord and around the nerve root.”
Scripps is home to expert spine specialists and surgeons who treat a wide variety of conditions using advanced and minimally invasive procedures, including spinal fusion, artificial disc replacement and robotic spine surgery.
Dr. Malone was prepared for Cortes-Addeo’s complex surgery, with help from a neuromonitoring team to assess the tumor, an anesthesiologist who specializes in spinal surgery and an operating room nurse and scrub technician experienced in complex spine surgeries.
“It takes a team, and because I often get funneled complicated cervical spine cases like these, we have developed an exceptional approach,” Dr. Malone says. “We go into surgeries like these not knowing if they’re going to take three hours or eight hours. You can’t speed it up and you can’t impose your will on the tumor — you just have to trust your judgment and your surgical fundamentals.”
The day of the surgery, Cortes-Addeo says she finally got emotional about the experience but trusted her Scripps team with her care.
“I didn’t know what I was going to be like when I woke up,” she says. “Dr. Malone reassured me, saying, ‘No matter what, we are going to do our very best for you. You will be OK.’”
Five hours later, Cortes-Addeo was out of surgery. She had a long road ahead of her but would fully recover without any permanent loss of mobility.
“The real marvel was that it was a fairly large tumor, and we were able to do a complete resection,” Dr. Malone says. “The spine had stretched to accommodate it, and it didn’t cause any real neurological injury.”
Cortes-Addeo spent the first day of recovery lying flat to allow the surgery site to heal. The next day, she was able to walk. She spent a few weeks in the hospital, where she got to know the Scripps nursing staff, whom, she said, became her family.
“Because my surgery was during the pandemic, I couldn’t have anyone visit me, so I told my caregivers, ‘Now you’re my best friends, you’re my family.’ The nurses couldn’t have been more amazing — the hangouts and the laughs were real, and I loved every minute of it,” she says.
“I was a different person when I woke up from that surgery — I was just so thankful. When I first saw Dr. Malone, I wanted to hug him, but I couldn’t move my arms,” she laughs.
Cortes-Addeo’s recovery was not without its challenges. She faced some residual side effects due to the tumor’s proximity to her nerve root. Her eye drooped and she had weakness in her right arm. She had to relearn how to write and feed herself. But she took it all in stride and with endless gratitude for her daughter, her parents, her new nurse friends and, of course, her surgeon, Dr. Malone.
“Dr. Malone has angel hands for healing and an amazing personality for making a person feel safe,” she says. “I don’t know if he realizes how important he is in my life.”
“If I hadn’t had that accident, I probably wouldn’t be here today — I wouldn’t have known about the tumor until it was too late. I tell people that the day I had my surgery was the day I was reborn.”Vivian Cortes-Addeo
As for what her life looks like now, Cortes-Addeo says that the accident and the surgery restarted it.
“If I hadn’t had that accident, I probably wouldn’t be here today — I wouldn’t have known about the tumor until it was too late,” she says. “I tell people that the day I had my surgery was the day I was reborn.”
And Cortes-Addeo, now 50, will not take that second chance for granted.
“Everything falls into place when you don’t let your mind accept negativity. I now have a total appreciation for things I used to take for granted,” she says.
“Both hands work, so I’m able to type. I’m walking and pushing myself to walk longer distances. I went to Europe this past summer, and I’m thankful I was able to do that. When you lose the luxuries of doing things that were once second nature, it gives you a whole new appreciation for what you can do.”
As for Cortes-Addeo’s prognosis, Dr. Malone says the sky’s the limit.
“She’s made a full recovery, and for more than a year later, her MRI is clear,” he concludes. “This can just be a chapter in her story.”
Cortes-Addeo says she remains cautiously optimistic that this chapter is long behind her. And whatever hand she is dealt in the future, she knows she has a team behind her and the strength within her to tackle it with confidence.
“I’m mentally prepared for anything to happen, so I appreciate every day,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have another tumor, but know that if I do, I have the best team to help me fight.”
This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.