Mitch Wright’s wife was killed while she was shielding a child, a 6th grade girl, from being shot in the Westside School shooting of 1998.
After such a tragic incident, most people would give up, but Mitch, a resident of Jonesboro, AR, had to continue raising his 2-½ year old son. He continued on with his work, which helps schools fundraise, and provided for his family.
Before the shooting, Mitch had made a pastime out of softball, golf and running. He had told his wife that he would run a marathon one day. She asked how far he was running now. He told her about three miles. She asked how long a marathon was. He told her about 20 miles. She laughed and said he better pick up the pace. In Mitch’s heart, he knew that some day he was going to run a marathon.
“When my son was in the first grade, I chose to run my first marathon in Nashville. In the last 50 yards, my son came to the barrier and we ran hand in hand through the finish line.”
Mitch told his son that he ran the marathon for his mother. His son told him that he needed to run four more, so he asked why. Mitch’s son told him that there were four girls that were killed the same day his mom died, so in the next two years, he ran five marathons.
But his active lifestyle began to come to a halt as he started to lose his hearing.
“I noticed a drastic loss of hearing in my right ear around October 2014. I called my audiologist and thought it was an issue with my hearing aid. My ENT put me on a steroid pack for ten days, thinking it may have been an infection, then continued with an MRI to rule out an acoustic neuroma. In December of 2014, they discovered it was in fact an acoustic neuroma.”
An acoustic neuroma, more correctly called a vestibular schwannoma, is a rare benign tumor originating from the outer sheath of the balance nerve. They are usually slow growing and account for approximately 7.5 percent of brain tumors.
“Initially, the incident didn’t affect much more than my hearing. I was still playing softball. I was still playing golf. I was still running. I was still doing everything I had always done. I noticed when I was playing softball, that I had fallen over a few times, but I thought it was more an age related issue. In January of 2015, I started experiencing more symptoms. By March, I started having a lot of dizziness and headaches.”
In March of 2015, Mitch underwent another MRI, which revealed that the acoustic neuroma had grown a little.
“The dizziness started to impact my work. I do fundraising with schools so most of the time I deal with coaches in gyms. Anywhere with bad acoustics became a nightmare for me. I just wouldn’t be able to hear. The dizziness progressed into confusion and then to panic, where I needed to figure out what to do about this tumor in my brain.”
Mitch found about four people in his state that had the surgery, but they had all ended up with facial paralysis and had loss of hearing. So he turned to Facebook and found a group where acoustic neuroma patients talk.
“In the Facebook group, I kept on hearing about Dr. Friedman and Dr. Giannotta, the co-directors of the USC Acoustic Neuroma Center of Keck Medicine of USC. I decided that I would send my stuff over for a free record review so I could see what Dr. Friedman would recommend, but I was considering doing radiation treatment locally in Little Rock.
“I sent in my MRIs and the rest of my information on Thursday. To my surprise, I had a response back the following Tuesday and was speaking to Dr. Friedman. He asked me about my symptoms.”
Through Mitch’s conversation with Rick A. Friedman, MD, director of the USC Acoustic Neuroma Center at Keck Medicine of USC, he discovered that the radiation would leave him dizzy if he already felt that way.
“I was just so impressed with the fact that even though I live in Arkansas, I could send off my information on Thursday and have a surgeon call me from California on Tuesday. I couldn’t even get someone to call me back that quickly in my own state!”
To weigh out the situation, Mitch went back to speak with the other surgeon.
“Both doctors gave me the exact same odds, but Dr. Friedman said he would at least attempt to save my hearing. Also, I felt so comfortable with Dr. Friedman, Kris, the patient navigator and all the other patients whom I talked to who had the same surgery I did. I was totally convinced that Dr. Friedman is the best and I hadn’t even met him yet. It was a no brainer to fly out to California.”
Mitch’s biggest fear from the procedure was facial paralysis and having to file for disability. But he knew he had to do the acoustic neuroma surgery regardless.
“I had three expectations. I wanted to wake up. I hope not to have any facial paralysis. If I have any hearing on the right side, it would be a bonus.”
Mitch flew in to Los Angeles for his successful surgery on Tuesday, July 28, 2015 and was back home on Thursday, August 6, 2015.
“The last question I asked Dr. Giannotta was when I could play golf again. He said when I could swing a club without falling down. Two weeks after my surgery, I asked my son for a club on the golf course and took a swing. It was difficult, but I didn’t fall over!”
Mitch went through vestibular therapy for six weeks post surgery. 10 weeks in, he was back to work. Nine months later, he was running another marathon.
“When I had my brain surgery, I kept seeing people on Facebook complain about how they couldn’t do this or that, but some of my new friends who had gone through an acoustic neuroma were planning to run a half marathon. I felt like I wanted to do a half marathon too, but my son asked me if I wanted to do the full marathon in Nashville instead. He said since it was the first one that he did for mom, we could do the full marathon together. It was a heck of a goal to overcome, mentally, physically and just to see if I could do it.
I was so dizzy for the first few steps and my balance was off for the first quarter mile, but things began to balance out. I started to feel normal again. Then my son and I finished the marathon together.”
After the marathon, another participant shared her story with Mitch about how she had undergone multiple different brain tumors herself. They talked for 15 minutes. To Mitch, that was the best part of the marathon – to speak with and helping motivate someone who is going through the same thing, or even worse.
That’s just another example of The Keck Effect – giving people another chance to inspire the world around them.