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Battle with rare brain cyst inspires former patient to become doctor

A decade ago, Neurosurgeon Clark C. Chen, MD, PhD, performed two life-changing brain surgeries to help John Cassady. Inspired by Chen’s compassion, Cassady left his own career to practice medicine.
John Cassady (right) poses with University of Minnesota Health Neurosurgeon Clark C. Chen, MD, PhD. A decade ago, Chen performed a series of brain surgeries to help Cassady. Inspired by his example, Cassady is now a second-year medical student at University of Minnesota Medical School.

Last year, John Cassady was walking on campus near the University of Minnesota Medical School when he saw a familiar figure moving toward him.

That person was Neurosurgeon Clark C. Chen, MD, PhD—the man who had performed a series of life-changing brain surgeries on Cassady a decade ago. Cassady stopped and greeted Chen.

“It took him only a split second to recognize me,” Cassady said. “I was so touched that he remembered me after all these years.” The next day, the two met in Chen’s office to catch up.

They had a lot of ground to cover: Chen’s compassionate care had inspired Cassady to become a doctor. He is now a second-year medical student. And Chen, who developed an innovative treatment plan for Cassady’s rare condition years ago, had since been hired as the chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

A “custom” surgery for a rare condition

Chen and Cassady first met in Massachusetts in 2008.

Cassady had been experiencing a strange tingling sensation in his left hand. A local clinic diagnosed him with carpal tunnel syndrome, but Cassady’s girlfriend (who would later become his wife), then a first-year medical student, was skeptical and urged him to seek further evaluation.

The tingling grew worse, and Cassady began to develop problems with his vision and balance. Eventually, his face went numb and he lost the ability to move his eyes.

The symptoms landed him in the emergency department at a hospital in Massachusetts. There, doctors found a cyst in his pons—a part of the brain stem responsible for relaying information in the brain and regulating vital bodily functions, including vision, sensation and balance.

Enter Chen. The neurosurgeon and his team diagnosed Cassady with an extremely rare neurological condition. Cassady was just 24 years old.

“In addition to the cyst in the pons, John had multiple abnormalities throughout his brain,” Chen said.

Cassady’s condition was very complex.

“Because there were multiple abnormalities, it wasn’t immediately clear which one was causing his symptoms. We consulted with a large panel of world-renowned specialists with a wide spectrum of expertise. Based on this information, we ultimately customized a surgery specifically for John,” Chen recalled.

Chen performed a ten-hour surgery to drain Cassady’s pontine cyst and biopsy its tissue. After surgery, specialists confirmed that the cyst was not cancerous. Cassady’s symptoms disappeared immediately after the procedure and he was sent home after two days.

 KARE 11 News recently featured John Cassady's story. Watch more. 

Compassion and resilience

But three months later, Cassady’s symptoms returned. Another evaluation showed that the cyst had re-filled.

“During the conversation to tell me the cyst had re-accumulated, Dr. Chen explained things so compassionately,” Cassady said. He remembered the phone call as one of the most difficult he’s ever had. “He sounded just as distraught as I felt. That was a formative experience in patient care for me.”

Cassady had to undergo a second surgery for cyst drainage. This time, Chen and his team designed a specialized catheter system tailored for Cassady’s situation. Again, Cassady emerged from the surgery with complete resolution of his symptoms.  He remains well 10 years after the second surgery.

“John’s disease and his specific combination of complications could have been fatal if left untreated. However, with appropriate treatment it can be cured, as was the case with John,” Chen said.

Following that second surgery, Cassady completed his PhD in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and started to work in a stem cell laboratory. But he wanted to take his life in a different direction.

“After my experience with Dr. Chen, which was my first exposure to the medical world, and his incredible impact on my life, I knew I wanted to practice medicine,” he said.

Cassady eventually applied to and was accepted by the University of Minnesota Medical School. He and his wife, Jennifer Huang, moved back to Minneapolis, where she began practicing medicine in the Minneapolis VA Health Care System.

Fast forward to Oct. 2017, when Cassady—who needs ongoing care—became Chen’s first patient through University of Minnesota Health.

We offer comprehensive, state-of-the art care for the full range of neurosurgical problems. Learn more.

“I tell all my family and friends that I have the world’s best neurosurgeon as my doctor,” Cassady said. “I also tell them that I’m his favorite patient because that’s the way he acts and that’s how he makes me feel. He tries to treat everyone like that. That’s how medicine should be practiced — every patient should feel like they’re your favorite patient.”

After their chance meeting in the hallways of the medical school, Chen was pleased to learn that he had influenced Cassady to become a doctor.

“John’s story exemplifies the resilience of the human spirit and the marvel of modern medicine,” Chen said. “I think his story can serve as inspiration to other patients who are currently dealing with their own challenging medical conditions.”

“There are many diseases, such as the one that John suffered, that require expertise beyond the currently available knowledge or the knowledge of any single individual,” Chen added. “University of Minnesota Health physicians and researchers leverage intellectual discourse and discovery to advance the standards of medical care and advocate for our patients.”