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.
Before losing his wife, 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 because there were four girls that were killed the same day his mom died. In the next two years, Mitch 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 noticed when I was playing softball that I had fallen over a few times, but I thought it was more an age-related issue,” he said. “In January of 2015, I started experiencing more symptoms. By March, I was experiencing dizziness and headaches.”
In March of 2015, Mitch underwent another MRI, which revealed that the acoustic neuroma had grown.
“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,” he said. “The dizziness progressed into confusion and then to panic.”
Mitch turned to Facebook and found a group of acoustic neuroma patients.
“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,” Mitch said. “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 said. “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.
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,” Mitch said. “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 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,” said Mitch. “He said when I could swing a club without falling down.”
Two weeks after his surgery, Mitch asked his son for a club on the golf course and took a swing. He didn’t fall over. Mitch went through vestibular therapy for six weeks post surgery. 10 weeks later, he was back to work. Nine months later, he was running another marathon. His son asked him if they could run the marathon together in Nashville — the one Mitch had originally run for his wife.
“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,” he said. “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. For 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.