When Dawn Fishback was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1990, she never realized it would lead her to finding her life’s work.
When Dawn was nine years old she told her father that she wanted to be a doctor just before he unexpectedly passed away. She started laying the groundwork to become a health care provider by obtaining her bachelors degree in microbiology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Next, she was accepted into the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s physician assistant program. Her dream was right on track.
Six months into the program, Dawn started experiencing numbness on the left side of her face and severe headaches, which interfered with her ability to study. Concerned, she reached out to a friend of hers, who was a USC-trained gynecologist, to order an MRI of her brain.
Sure enough, the scan revealed an acoustic neuroma. She had a large, slow-growing benign tumor in the auditory canal, which was causing pressure on her brain stem. A Keck Medicine–trained general surgeon, who happened to be the husband of the gynecologist who ordered the MRI, called Dawn with the news. “I have some good news and some bad news,” he explained. “The bad news is that you have a tumor. The good news is that it appears to be benign and I have the best surgeon in the USA who can take it out: Steven Giannotta.”
A doctor she can trust
As a physician assistant student, Dawn understood the importance of getting a second opinion. In fact, she got four.
“I saw four neurosurgeons before ultimately deciding that I wanted Dr. Giannotta to perform my surgery,” she said. “Dr. Giannotta was honest and upfront with me and carefully reviewed the risks and benefits of the surgery. He was extremely confident and self-assured, and that made me feel comfortable. I could tell he was a caring and honest person, and that I would be in excellent hands with him performing my surgery.”
Dr. Giannotta educated Dawn on the different surgical approaches he could perform to remove all or as much of her tumor as possible. Based on the size and shape of her tumor and the risks and benefits of each approach, she chose the translabyrinthine approach. This is a microsurgery procedure that removes the tumor through an incision behind the ear. At that time, it was the safest way to prevent facial paralysis and be able to get a total resection of her tumor. However, because the bones of the inner ear are removed to reach the tumor, she would sacrifice hearing in one ear.
“My main goal was to save my face and get the whole tumor out. If I lost my hearing, then, oh well, at least I have my other ear,” she reasoned.
Dawn’s surgery was February 28, 1990 — a date she refers to as “the day that changed my life.” The surgery was successful, despite Dawn losing her hearing in one ear. “I focus on the positives,” she said. “I am cured, my tumor is completely gone, and I’m not limited in anything I do. There are actually good things that have come from my hearing loss. For instance, I sleep so well. I put my good ear down on the pillow and don’t hear a thing!”
The transformation, however, was more than physical. In her first postoperative visit with Dr. Giannotta, he suggested that Dawn come to work for him as his neurosurgical physician assistant after she finished school. He told her that she had something she could provide to his patients — empathy. Though she had always known she wanted to work in surgery, she thought she would be working in gynecology and obstetrics.
“It was at that moment that I realized, ‘Oh my gosh — this tumor is a gift from God!’” Dawn said. “I was blessed to have had it removed with no real major physical limitations, plus it offered me two amazing professional opportunities: The chance to work with Dr. Giannotta, a world-renowned neurosurgeon, and the ability to truly empathize with my patients. I know exactly what they are going through. I know what it’s like to have had a craniotomy.”
Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life — this has been Dawn’s mantra for the last 28 years in her role as Dr. Giannotta’s physician assistant.
“I feel blessed. I think that the tumor was definitely a blessing,” she said. “It gave me this wonderful opportunity and molded my professional career in so many ways.”