Waterloo woman home for Christmas after rare tumour removed from spine

Last New Year's Eve, Rashmi Sanjay found out she had a tumour in her spine at the back of her neck. Surgery could lead to paralysis, but so could not having surgery, so Sanjay says she put her trust in her doctor and kept a positive attitude to get through the ordeal.

Rashmi Sanjay filled her rehab room with pictures of her children for inspiration

Rashmi Sanjay, centre, works with an occupational therapist at West Park Healthcare Centre as her husband, Sanjay Govindaraj, looks on. (Submitted by: West Park Healthcare Centre)

Rashmi Sanjay still tears up when she thinks about her daughter wanting to go with her to the hairdresser back in September.

It was no ordinary haircut. She was about to go into surgery to have a tumour removed from her cervical spine at the back of her neck and the cut would make it easier to brush her hair afterwards.

"I said, 'Why do you want to cut your hair?' I said, 'I'm the one (having surgery).' She's like, 'Just so you don't feel alone,'" Rashmi, who prefers to be called by her first name, recalled.

"It broke my heart."

Rashmi had no idea what life would look like after her surgery. The tumour was in a complicated place — the nerves in her spine.

Rashmi Sanjay doing yoga before her diagnosis with a rare tumour in her spine in the back of her neck. She says she looks forward to making a full recovery so she can go back to teaching yoga and teaching children how to Bollywood dance. (Submitted by: Rashmi Sanjay)

It was discovered after the yoga and child Bollywood dance instructor told her family doctor about some odd symptoms she had began experiencing last December. Symptoms such as numbness in her fingers, a stiff neck and problems sleeping.

On New Year's Eve she was told it was a tumour.

The first doctor she went to see in Hamilton told her she had six months to get her life in order and after that she would be paralyzed.

"We got home and we were beside ourselves. It was so emotional. We both broke down — we didn't know where our lives were going to go from there," she said.

Rashmi and her husband, Sanjay Govindaraj, decided they needed a second opinion and spoke with neurosurgeon Dr. Sunit Das at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

He agreed to do the surgery although he warned them: He couldn't guarantee Rashmi would be able to walk afterwards.

Rashmi Sanjay, right, with her husband, Sanjay Govindaraj, her mom, Veena Srinivasan, daughter Rhea and son Eshan. She walked into the CBC K-W studio on Dec. 8 to share her experience. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

Saying goodbye

Not sure what the future would hold, or if she'd ever be able to travel to see family again, the couple and their two children travelled to India in August.

Rashmi said it was a good trip, "but it was hard to say goodbye to everybody."

While she had held back a lot of information from her family, she had confided in her brother.

"For him, it was the hardest" to say goodbye, she said.

During the trip — and for the entire ordeal — Rashmi said she remained positive and never allowed negative thoughts to linger.

"They saw how positive I was with this whole thing, that was another factor that got me to where I am," she said.

Listen to the whole interview on The Morning Edition with Craig Norris:

'You won't be able to hug us?'

All along, her children — Rhea, 9 and Eshan, 7 — knew something was up, but Rashmi and Govindaraj didn't sit them down to explain the situation fully until after they returned from India.

"The first thing my daughter said was, 'So you won't be able to walk? You won't be able to hug us?' And it just broke my heart," Rashmi recalled.

They explained to the children that without the surgery, the tumour could cause health problems and could eventually lead to paralysis as it grew.

The surgery would help her to feel better but may also leave her unable to walk or move her arms. It was a risk, but as she had with her family in India, Rashmi put on a brave face and said everything would be fine.

The first thing my daughter said was, 'So you won't be able to walk? You won't be able to hug us?' and it just broke my heart.- Rashmi Sanjay

In the two weeks leading up to surgery, Rashmi kept busy. She bought Halloween costumes, took the children to the dentist, got the winter clothes out, made lists for her husband and mother — who had travelled home with them from India to help out — and even made up signs in case she couldn't speak so she could communicate with her husband after the surgery.

The night before, Rashmi helped her children pack. They seemed excited because they were going for a sleepover.

"It just felt like it was my last time doing these things," she said.

The next day on the way to the hospital was difficult for Govindaraj.

"My husband was an emotional wreck. It just hit him so bad as we were getting closer to the hospital. He was ready to throw up," Rashmi said.

She was talking to someone else "and she was laughing," he said.

"I can't breathe and here she is, laughing."

Rashmi Sanjay walks with a cane as she and her husband, Sanjay Govindaraj, leave West Park Healthcare Centre in Toronto after nearly a month of rehabilitation. (Submitted by: West Park Healthcare Centre)

Common tumour growing from an uncommon place

Her surgery on Sept. 27 took six long hours.

The tumour was a unique one, her neurosurgeon said, with fewer than 70 known cases worldwide in the last 85 years.

The tumour was a schwannoma, which are common but normally external of the spinal cord. This one seemed to grow out of the spinal cord, which made it extremely rare, her neurosurgeon Dr. Sunit Das told CBC News. 

It's so gratifying to see someone do well. Her's is one of those cases that makes what I do worth all the weight of it.- Neurosurgeon Dr. Sunit Das

"The hard thing with her tumour was two-fold: Number one is, it was remarkably firm — it was firm like a racquetball — and number two, as I was mobilizing it away from the spinal cord there was a point where I wasn't able to distinguish it from the spinal cord at all," said Das.

Neurosurgeons like Das sometimes struggle because they sometimes can't help their patients as much as they would like, but he said of successful cases like Rashmi's, "you need stuff like that to keep you going."

"It's so gratifying to see someone do well. Her's is one of those cases that makes what I do worth all the weight of it," he said.

Road to recovery

After she was out of surgery, Rashmi was on heavy pain medication. The drugs caused her to see hallucinations and her lungs began to collapse. She was told her morphine doses needed to be drastically reduced.

But she still felt immense pain.

"My pain, on a scale of 10, it would be 12. It was nasty," Rashmi said.

"My mom would put her hand on my head and … she played the audio of some kind of meditation and I just focused on calming my head down. With all that pain, I don't know how I did it but it seemed to work."

A week later, on Oct. 3, Rashmi was taken to West Park Healthcare Centre in Toronto to start her rehabilitation.

At first, she barely wanted to move because it hurt so much. Staff didn't push her and when Rashmi was ready, she started to make small movements and eventually started to walk.

Her room was filled with pictures and cards from her children and family.

"My kids are my goal," she said.

Ludmilla Ferreira, an occupational therapist at West Park, said they knew Rashmi was an independent woman before her surgery.

"We listened to her needs and addressed the problems she was having to ensure she could be independent again and be able to achieve her goals," Ferreira said.

Although she had been told it could take six months before she could go home, Rashmi had other plans.

"For Christmas, if I can be home, that would be great," she said.

Rashmi Sanjay needs a cane to help her walk for now, and her left arm is sensitive to touch because of nerve damage from the surgery, but she's happy to be home. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

'I just want to dance'

Rashmi returned home Oct. 30. She walks with a cane and her left arm is still healing as the nerves were damaged during surgery — but she's home.

She credits her doctor and her own positive outlook for getting her to this point.

"I'm going to go in happy because I know I can do this," was her mantra of sorts, she said.

She gets stronger daily and Rashmi said she hopes to return to her job, as well as teaching yoga and children how to dance.

She's also looking forward to life returning to normal.

When she arrived home, her children crawled into the hospital bed the family had rented for Rashmi so she didn't have to go up the stairs.

And refused to let her go.

"I love dancing," she said. "My daughter loves dancing so I just want to dance with her all the time."