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Turning "Luck" into Breakthroughs

Because of his jubilant, glass-half-full nature, Craig Stiegemeier believes the luckiest moment of his life happened one spring day in 2012 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“I had begun experiencing short-term memory loss, and my family saw a change in my personality—I wasn’t as talkative and upbeat as I usually am,” Craig says. “I was going through a stressful time because my dad was dying of kidney cancer, so I was diagnosed as being depressed. But my wife, Barbara, and I didn’t think that was the answer. I’ve never been depressed in my life; in fact, I’ve always felt blessed beyond what I deserve because of my strong faith and wonderful family.”

At the urging of a neighbor, a nurse anesthetist, the Stiegemeiers sought answers at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where they received the diagnosis that at first blush certainly didn’t seem lucky. The brain tumor just diagnosed had spread from melanoma (skin cancer), for which Craig had been treated in 2009 at another hospital. While doctors followed him closely for three years after his melanoma diagnosis, the brain tumor developed within months of his last checkup. Tumors also were found in one of his kidneys, an adrenal gland, and in lymph nodes throughout his body.

“The brain cancer was a fast-growing tumor deep inside my brain, right in the area responsible for motor control, speech and memory,” Craig says. “The initial prognosis was that the tumor was inoperable, and I might have four to six months to live.”

So where was the luck in Craig’s diagnosis? He says if he hadn’t been having symptoms caused by the brain tumor, doctors wouldn’t have found the cancer that had spread elsewhere in his body until it was too late to treat.

In addition, Craig’s Washington University oncologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Gerald Linette, MD, knew a neurosurgeon who quite possibly had the answer to successfully treating Craig’s brain tumor.

A Dramatic Procedure Has Dramatic Results

Eric Leuthardt, MD, a Washington University neurosurgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, is an expert in performing awake craniotomies, a dramatic and difficult surgical procedure performed on patients whose problems occur near the areas of the brain that control speech and motor function. The procedure involves putting a patient to sleep, removing part of a patient’s skull and exposing the brain. Before a surgeon begins cutting or manipulating brain tissue, the patient is awakened to interact with the surgical team.

“While removing or destroying troublesome tissue, we need to ensure we’re not damaging healthy tissues,” explains Dr. Leuthardt, who serves as director of the Center for Innovation in Neuroscience and Technology at Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “The most reliable way to do this is to wake up the patient, ask him or her to answer questions and perform simple motor tasks, then monitor the responses. With emerging capabilities, such as new brainmapping techniques, awake craniotomy is more effective than ever.”

For Craig—an electrical engineer with a positive, straightforward view of life— there was no question about moving ahead with the awake craniotomy procedure.

“My attitude was whatever it took to remove the tumor, I was willing to do,” he says. “Immediately upon meeting Dr. Leuthardt, I felt we had an intellectual connection. I appreciated the intricate skill involved in the surgery, as well as the advanced technology he uses to ensure the best outcomes for his patients.”

Among these leading-edge technologies is the hospital’s intraoperative MRI suite, one of only about 20 in the United States. The advanced iMRI, funded by The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, allows surgeons to produce and consult real-time images during surgery, yielding more precision to safely remove as much of the tumor as possible. In addition, surgeons use stereotactic navigation, a system that works like GPS to guide them through a patient’s brain, and other sophisticated brain-mapping techniques—some developed by Dr. Leuthardt—to pinpoint areas that control very specific behaviors.

“The result is the best balance between safely avoiding critical areas in the brain and being maximally aggressive toward the tumor,” Dr. Leuthardt says. “Today, we have more tools and capabilities so we can be flexible and adjust to the unique needs of the patient. It’s not one-size-fitsall brain surgery.”

A Decision to Change the Future

For Craig, the awake craniotomy, combined with targeted radiation treatment, successfully treated his brain tumor. Surgeons also removed his cancerous kidney and adrenal gland, and Craig takes an immune-system modifying drug that helps to eliminate the other tumors found throughout his body.

Except for additional surgery in August 2013 to remove scar tissue, Craig hasn’t experienced a recurrence of symptoms. His good health has allowed him to return to his position as business development and technology director at ABB Inc.’s North American transformer service organization, for which he travels frequently. He also travels for pleasure. Craig and Barbara were vacationing in Rome when Pope Francis was elected successor to Pope Benedict. He has enjoyed more time than he thought he would ever have with his daughter, Maggie, and sons, Bill and Charles.

Craig felt strongly that all things happen for a reason and that it was time to give back so others can be blessed, too.

“Dr. Leuthardt is such a talented surgeon, and his research and patents in the fields of neuroprosthetics and neurosurgical devices have the potential for helping so many people,” Craig says. “Barbara and I are so grateful to him, and we wanted to contribute in some way to his future success.”

Their solution was to establish the Applied Neuroscience Fund for Dr. Eric Leuthardt.

“This kind of support is critical to my research because it allows me to pursue exploratory projects not covered from other funding sources,” Dr. Leuthardt says. “In fact, Craig’s fund supported a brain-mapping paper in the prestigious Neurosurgery journal, which provided key preliminary data for submitting other grants. Now more than ever, this type of philanthropy is vital because American science is under threat due to reduced government funding.

Craig’s admiration for Dr. Leuthardt, Dr. Linette and other physicians at Barnes-Jewish Hospital remains strong and sincere.

“You know these people are world-class doctors, but you never get the impression they are trying to hurry away from you and get to the next patient,” Craig says. “They are sensitive to making sure all your questions are answered. I was truly blessed in the treatment and care I received. My hope is that the fund we established will continue supporting Dr. Leuthardt’s efforts well into the future to help other patients.”

The admiration goes both ways. “Craig is one of those patients who inspires me,” Dr. Leuthardt says. “He has a great attitude and truly demonstrates the strength of the human spirit. He sees beyond his own personal circumstances and wants to help others through his philanthropy.”

Please support breakthrough neuroscience research by making a gift to support the Applied Neuroscience Fund for Dr. Eric Leuthardt (#B1448-40) at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital. For more information, call 314-286-0600 or email [email protected].
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