On January 7, 2007, Ronald Yutko was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma; a slow-growing tumor of the nerve that connects the ear to the brain. Eileen Yutko remembers asking herself, “How could this be? A brain tumor? No one in my family had suffered much more than a broken bone. I didn’t even know where to begin.” So Eileen did what any loving wife would do: she rolled up her sleeves and started making phone calls. “We had a family friend who was an OR nurse at Overlook Hospital. After explaining our situation, she assured us that Dr. Benitez of ANS was the person to call. By February 16, 2007, my husband, Ron, was undergoing his first brain surgery.”
After Ron’s surgery, he was deaf in his left ear, his balance was off, and his eyes would tear constantly, but they were minor obstacles in the grand scheme of things. “Ron made it through his surgery alive; that’s what mattered most to us.”
In 2010, Ron’s tumor was back and the Yutko family would, yet again, be acquainted with a hospital room and countless visits to the doctor’s office. “It was the worst news we’d thought we’d ever hear. To go through that once was hard; to have to hear the news again was crushing.” Under the care of Dr. Benitez, Ron successfully made it through his second surgery, but it was a tough time for the Yutko family. Ron suffered from severe depression after his brain tumor, and each day was taken one step at a time.
In September 2011, Eileen and Ron’s daughter, Lauren, started her freshman year at Raritan Valley Community College. A motivated learner with a drive to succeed, Lauren remained an honor student while volunteering regularly for the 4-H Club. During the end of Lauren’s second semester, Lauren scheduled a doctor’s appointment with her primary care physician when she noticed that one of her arms felt weaker than usual. Lauren’s doctor recommended that she see a neurologist to get an MRI.
Days later, while Lauren was finishing up her exams, it was Eileen who answered the phone call regarding her daughter’s MRI results. The hesitation in the neurologist’s voice was all too familiar. “Your daughter, Lauren, has a hemangioma, a brain tumor caused by an abnormal buildup of blood vessels in the skin or internal organs, and it’s big. She needs to find a neurosurgeon immediately.”
Eileen was beside herself. “My body went numb and the world began to spin. How would I explain to my 19-year-old daughter that, just like her daddy, she’d have to face brain surgery? The only comfort I could hold onto for the rest of that day was knowing who I could turn to and trust with my baby girl. My next phone call was to Dr. Benitez.”
Even though Lauren’s brain tumor was not related to her father’s, Lauren and her family were familiar with the road ahead. Lauren would have to undergo brain surgery and Eileen knew she had to remain strong for her family. She is grateful that ANS was there to help make this possible. “As the next 7 days began to unfold, the physicians and surgical staff at ANS became our rock. They assured me and my husband that Lauren would be okay and did everything they could to accommodate our family’s needs.”
Within 10 days of finding out about her brain tumor, Lauren had undergone surgery and was walking out of the hospital on her road to recovery. “Her spirits were high and the first thing she said to me when we left the hospital that Sunday was about a support group ANS had started for people with brain tumors and how she would like to go.” The next meeting was just 7 days after Lauren’s surgery. With unbelievable courage and determination, Lauren and her family made it to that meeting.
The support group, called Partnership of Hope, was started by ANS in April 2012. Employees of ANS volunteer their time to hold the support group once a month for patients and their loved ones suffering from brain tumors. Eileen explains, “When we walked in, we were greeted by over 50 other attendees. The turnout was astounding. We couldn’t believe it.” During the 2-3 hours, ANS provides dinner, dessert, and beverages. You can share your stories or just sit back and listen to others tell theirs. “What was so amazing about the first meeting our family attended was that for the first time in 5 years, I felt as though I wasn’t alone, as though my family wasn’t alone…We felt a sense of ‘hope’ again.”
In addition to dinner and open discussions, ANS provides a guest speaker at every meeting. The doctors mingle with the patients and there are plenty of interactive activities for everyone to enjoy. At one meeting, massages were available for anyone who wanted one. At another meeting, ANS brought in a makeup artist and a hypnotist. Volunteers also work outside of the meeting to accommodate the everyday needs of patients who are not able to care for themselves. Partnership of Hope offers patients transportation to doctor’s appointments, prepared meals, child care, additional counseling, grocery shopping, and more. “Our lives are difficult, and sometimes unbearable. The Partnership of Hope has brought a smile to my daughter’s face again.”
Since their first meeting in May, Lauren and her family have attended every Partnership of Hope meeting. They have even brought extended family members, including Lauren’s 14-year-old cousin, who has been close with Lauren her entire life. Like it would be for most teenagers, discussing a loved one’s condition has been scary for him. “Attending the meetings helps him to understand what Lauren is going through and educates him about what Lauren will have to deal with in the future.”
“Attending the Partnership of Hope has been one of the most moving experiences of my life and I would recommend it to anyone in a similar situation. If you or someone you know is dealing with a brain tumor, you can’t lose anything by trying it out. Even if you’re not a patient at ANS, you are still welcome to attend. Every person there is special, and I’ve learned so much from their experiences. Most importantly, I’ve learned that my own family’s story could inspire others to never give up hope.”
Today, Lauren is doing very well and is enrolled to begin her second year of college in the fall. Over the past few years, Eileen’s family has walked a treacherous road, but in the end, she still has her husband and daughter. “Two months ago my life was turned upside down, but look at where I am now. I’m okay. My family is okay. Not all families in the group are as fortunate, but we’ve all been brought together to share the same common ‘appreciation for life.’ And for that, we are grateful.” Thank you, ANS.