A Remarkable Recovery
The journey of a brain tumor patient marked with support and hope.
Aaron “Melvin” Turner knew of the battle raging in his head between his brain and a growing tumor. He and his wife, Joan, had been working toward surgery for more than a year. Neither one of them was thrilled about it.
“The doctor we were seeing at another hospital only focused on risk,” Joan said while counting on her fingers all the ways they were told Melvin’s surgery could take a turn for the worse.
Their lives changed on Aug. 29, 2017, when emergency medical technicians rushed Melvin to UF Health Jacksonville and, ultimately, to neurosurgeon Daryoush Tavanaiepour, MD.
Two years earlier, the Turners were enjoying retirement and celebrating 50 years of marriage with four children and two dozen grand- and great- grandchildren when Melvin began displaying a series of questionable medical symptoms.
“My husband started experiencing a loss of bladder control,” Joan said. “The first time was at a family picnic in 2015.”
Her Master of Science and Health degree and certifications in geriatric studies told her he was relatively young for the condition. He was 70 at the time. Other warning signs developed quickly in the following months.
“By 2016, I started falling out of bed,” Melvin said. “Every night, my wife would have to call our son to pick me up and put me back.”
“There were days she would come home and I was in the same spot from when she left,” Melvin said. Leg weakness set in, preventing him from getting up without aid. Melvin seemed to be deteriorating in front of Joan’s eyes. She feared he may have dementia.
“I requested an MRI of his brain,” she said, exhaling heavily. “That’s when they found a tumor.”
Coming to UF Health
The couple started the laborious process of moving toward surgery. She carried a notebook to doctor appointments. She kept detailed notes on every question asked. Her files filled up with Melvin’s office visit print-outs, pictures of his brain and countless test results.
During the same year, unbeknownst to the Turners, Tavanaiepour guided the opening of the first Skull Base Surgery Center in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia.
The stellar medical team conducts leading-edge research and clinical trials. Their diverse knowledge collectively extends into neurosurgery, head and neck surgery, proton therapy, neuroradiology, neuropathology, endocrinology, otolaryngology, neuro-ophthalmology, radiation and medical oncology.
Once a week, the cast of specialists sit down at a conference table and review patient records to consider best options from every angle.
“This is a game changer,” Tavanaiepour said. “We put all the doctors at one table, interact live and come up with solutions. Mr. Turner is one specific beneficiary of that.”
The facility’s opening and Melvin’s tumor discovery were each about a year old when Joan came home from the store and found her husband on his knees. Like many times before, she tried helping him up. This time, however, he toppled over.
“A voice in my head said, ‘Call 911. He’s stroking. Call 911.’”
An ambulance rushed Melvin to UF Health North. Imaging revealed worrisome tumor results. Staff whisked Melvin off to UF Health Jacksonville. He flatlined on the way, but made it.
“Mrs. Turner was very caring of her husband,” Tavanaiepour said, crediting Joan’s quick action with saving Melvin that day. “She’s thorough, intelligent and very insightful with her questions.”
While Tavanaiepour consulted his team, Joan consulted the internet to analyze neurosurgeons. “I even looked into doctors in other parts of the country. Dr. Tavanaiepour was the best. Trust me. I did my research.”
Tavanaiepour said one of the major arteries that supplies blood to the brain was embedded in the tumor. He acknowledged the risk of a devastating stroke, but says he never assumes every patient wants to rush to surgery.
“We have to respect people’s diversity — their religious and cultural background, as well as their wishes. Some people don’t want surgery,” Tavanaiepour said. “We want to provide the family with enough information and options to make an informed decision.”
Allowing the Turners to take ownership of the decision provided a sense of comfort Joan had not felt previously. The choices included observation, radiation and surgery.
“He drew out a sketch, and he explained it in a language I could understand,” Joan said. The plan was to piecemeal the tumor and dissect it carefully away from the artery, using extreme magnification and very fine tools. His attention to detail gave her comfort.
“You never want to exaggerate the potential for recovery,” Tavanaiepour said. “But you don’t want to be so pessimistic that you don’t provide hope.”
During the procedure, their large family gathered in the waiting room. Joan felt at peace.
“Dr. Tavanaiepour showed me diagrams of a brain on his cell phone before surgery,” Joan said. “I had a visual. I knew exactly what was happening and how long it would take.”
Between her praying and receiving regular updates from a member of the surgical team throughout the 10-and-a-half hour procedure, Joan never wavered in believing the love of her life would be OK.
Melvin later awoke, with no idea of what transpired.
“The last thing I remember is being at UF Health North,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on. They told me I had surgery. And do you know what? Not one bit of pain. Nothing. Dr. Tavanaiepour is the best doctor in America.”
Tavanaiepour throws his head back in a hearty chuckle upon hearing this, then leans forward in his chair and gives credit to the team.
“This isn’t a surgeon and patient story. It really is an institutional approach. It’s about our community, this hospital, the region,” Tavanaiepour said, listing personnel who deserve credit, including operating room staff, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, post-op staff and intensive care unit staff.
The Skull Base Surgery Center’s peer review board doesn’t close the file when surgery is over. They assess results and discuss treatment moving forward. In Melvin’s case, results could not have been better.
“His recovery is remarkable,” Tavanaiepour said. “Cases like this are important for hope, for surgeons to have in the back of their minds for the next case.”
Since the surgery, Melvin renewed his Transportation Worker Identification Credential and returned to work — not because he had to, but because he wanted to. He no longer suffers from any of the symptoms that worried his wife when the road to recovery started. Joan says he is also a lot more engaged at family functions and with life in general.
In January, UF Health Jacksonville received the distinct recognition as one of America’s 250 Best Hospitals by Healthgrades, a national organization that analyzes the performance of hospitals across the country. In addition, the hospital’s Skull Base Surgery Center was among the top 5% nationwide in overall clinical excellence.