On her first day of graduate school, Andrea Du Bois’ sports psychology professor asked the students to play a game of telephone. It was an exercise in communication, which Andrea felt certain she had failed.

“The person next to me whispered in my ear and I had no idea what they said,” she recalls.

By that time, Andrea knew something was wrong with her left ear. It often felt plugged, causing voices to sound muffled much of the time. But she was otherwise a healthy 20-something who loved running, skiing and school and her hearing wasn’t getting in the way of any of her activities, so she ignored it.

“I put it off because I felt like I was functioning,” she says.

Hearing loss in one ear is one sign of a rare brain tumor called an acoustic neuroma that develops on a nerve that runs from the inner ear to the brain. Because acoustic neuromas are rare, Rick A. Friedman, MD, PhD, professor in the USC Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, notes that many people don’t realize that single-sided hearing loss or difficulty with balance can be signs of a serious problem.

Andrea, who is a doctoral student in the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, eventually got her hearing tested by an audiologist at Keck Medicine of USC. She also was given an MRI, which revealed the source of her trouble: a 2-centimeter, slow-growing acoustic neuroma.

Although an acoustic neuroma is a benign tumor, larger tumors can cause displacement of the cerebellum and brain stem and can be life-threatening.

Andrea knew she was in good hands with her surgeons, Dr. Friedman and Steven Giannotta, MD, chair and professor of neurological surgery at the Keck School, who is a member of the multidisciplinary team at the USC Acoustic Neuroma Center.

Their expertise in acoustic neuroma surgery, and the fact that the center is the top rated academic program in the country, draws patients from all over the world. She was confident that their experience would help her avoid the more serious complications of the surgery, including facial palsy or cerebral spinal fluid leaks.

“One thing that makes us different is that we take a very patient-centered approach,” says Dr. Friedman, who is also director of the USC Acoustic Neuroma Center, where the entire team specializes in the care of patients with this rare tumor.

She was surprised, though, at how the rest of the team rallied around her to get her ready. The center’s patient navigator, Kris Siwek, lined up appointments for Andrea and became an important source of information about what to expect during her recovery. Kris, a former patient of Dr. Friedman’s, also sat with Andrea following her surgery, talking her through her dizziness and discomfort. Andrea physical therapists met with her prior to surgery, to evaluate her before her operation and create a plan to get her back on her feet, as it is common for patients to struggle with balance in the aftermath.

Though her recovery wasn’t without difficulty, Andrea was back on her feet in a short amount of time and, before returning to school in August, her balance had recovered enough for her to join her mom and sister for a 5K run.

Looking back, Andrea knows it wasn’t wise to ignore her early symptoms. The one benefit of waiting until she was a student at USC was being treated by the team at the USC Acoustic Neuroma Center.

“I don’t think any other place would have treated me the way they did and I am so grateful to have been put in their hands,” says Andrea.

By Hope Hamashige