Earlier this year, Kelly Stafford, the wife of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, revealed in an Instagram post that she would be undergoing surgery to remove a non-cancerous brain tumor.
On Monday, through a first-person essay on espn.com, Kelly Stafford pulled the curtain back a little bit more on her diagnosis and recovery, and how close she came to losing her hearing.
‘The first moment I was concerned was last January’
Working with ESPN reporter Emily Kaplan for the story, Kelly begins, “The first moment I was really concerned was last January.”
She was in Michigan and had just gotten a massage, and when she walked out, she was lightheaded and “felt like the world was spinning around me.” She felt better after a few minutes sitting in her car, and drove herself home.
A week later, it happened again, but this time she was holding the couple’s infant daughter, Hunter. The room start spinning and she quickly handed the baby to Matthew, afraid of falling while holding her.
“We can’t have this keep happening,” Matthew told her. “We need to get you checked out.” He believed vertigo was the culprit.
In the months since, Kelly has realized that she’s felt “off” for a while, but as a mother of three daughters under the age of 2, she was always chasing after them or tending to their needs and her own went to the bottom of the list — it’s a feeling many mothers in particular can empathize with.
After almost dropping Hunter, Matthew insisted Kelly be seen by doctors and took her to the emergency room; since they were headed to California for vacation, she did the basics — vitals, blood work — but not an MRI. She was prescribed antivert as a vertigo treatment, and they left for their trip.
But the medicine did nothing to help.
Acoustic neuroma, a slow-growing brain tumor
Matthew had told the Lions’ team doctor what was happening with his wife, and the doctor made an appointment for her to get an MRI in California. A couple of days later, she had a diagnosis: acoustic neuroma, also called vestibular schwannoma.
According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, acoustic neuroma, also called vestibular schwannoma, “is a noncancerous and usually slow-growing tumor that develops on the main [vestibular] nerve leading from your inner ear to your brain. Branches of this nerve directly influence your balance and hearing, and pressure from an acoustic neuroma can cause hearing loss, ringing in your ear and unsteadiness.
“Acoustic neuroma usually arises from the Schwann cells covering this nerve and grows slowly or not at all. Rarely, it may grow rapidly and become large enough to press against the brain and interfere with vital functions.”
Kelly was understandably terrified by the news.
“Not at first. At first, we didn't have any idea of where this was going to go, and we just needed to figure out how to deal with it. But as the day went on, my fears started to show themselves. What if this thing gets taken out and something goes wrong? What if something happens before that? My biggest fear is not being here, and not being here to raise my girls.
“When I went home to hug my girls after the diagnosis, I knew I needed to get through this. I tried not to go down the rabbit hole when it came to what was the worst. I wanted to focus on positivity.”
A little hesitantly, she shared the story on social media. She and Matthew have seen some terrible things thanks to his job, but she wanted to let others know it’s ok to be scared, and she asked for prayers. She wanted prayers most of all.
“I'll say this: Detroit and Michigan really showed up. The Lions were incredible. They told Matthew to take all of the time and space he needed. And then, there were the fans. The amount of letters that poured into the facility — so many prayers, a lot of holy water — it was remarkable. Matthew joked that our house looked like a bootleg flower shop.
“This state can be tough on its athletes, especially one that has been here so long. We've been here for 11 years now, and I had never really taken to this state as much as I wanted to ... until now. Because the support that these people gave me — you can tell how much they love him by the support they gave me. I was truly grateful for it all.
“I had the surgery on April 17. They were going to open up my head and there was a 50 percent chance I would lose my hearing. There was a chance I'd lose facial function. It was all really scary.”
Surgery and recovery
Dr. Greg Thompson, who performed the surgery, likely saved Kelly’s hearing. He stopped the surgery more than once because her audio waves went dead; Thompson made everyone stop until the waves returned.
When she woke up, Kelly saw Matthew standing on her right side. He’d told her before the surgery that if it was bad news, he’d stand on her left side. Good news, he’d be on her right.
An athlete for much of her life — she even took up boxing training about 18 months ago — Kelly had to re-learn how to walk.
“The first day, the physical therapist walked into my hospital room and said, ‘Let's get you up.’ I'm always one to challenge myself; that's my personality. I remember looking at her and I was like, ‘Nope.’ I felt dizzy just sitting, there was no way I was getting up.
“I felt really defeated that day. She said she would come back tomorrow. I was dreading it, dreading it all morning, waiting for her to come back. I grew up playing so many sports, putting one foot in front of the other should be second nature for anybody. But for me at that point, it was really tough. I made it two doors down, only two doors down, and my dad — who was with me at the time— began realizing how hard it was for me. ‘Remember,’ he said. ‘We need to go back.’ ”
She details the slow process over the months since, the physical and mental fatigue she’d feel just trying to make it through a day. Kelly has only been to one Lions game so far this season, saying they’re just exhausting.
But she’s progressing, to the point where she’s returned to boxing training, and calls that time therapy away from therapy — it’s a challenging workout, because her brain has to process the combinations and movements.
Advice for moms
Kelly said these days, with the six-month mark from her surgery coming Thursday, she feels pretty good. Some days are still hard, and she knows she has to slow down. It’s rarer that she gets dizzy. Doctors said it will take about a year for her to be symptom-free and have the same energy level she did previously.
“If there's anything I want people to take away from my story, it's for mothers. If you ever feel the slightest bit off, you need to take the time to get it checked out. You don't have to put everything on your back. Sometimes, you need to take some time to make sure you are OK.
Dr. Thompson said the fact I listened to myself early on is what saved my hearing [and to be honest, I should have listened earlier]. The longer I would have waited, the tumor would have grown, and my hearing would have been gone. That's what usually brings people in.
I'll probably look into hearing aids for safety reasons soon. I do hope to go to football games again, but I don't want to injure the ear we worked so hard to save.”
Kelly and Matthew will detail more of their story on ESPN’s “Monday Night Countdown” on Monday evening.
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