It started with headaches.
Catarina Gómez, 18, was busy getting ready for her first year at Coe College in Iowa. In between packing, registering for classes, and saying farewell to her high school classmates, she began to suffer routine headaches. The pain was accompanied by black spots in her vision and dizziness. Focused on her future in Iowa, she didn’t give them much thought at first.
But as her freshman year began, the headaches grew progressively worse. Sometimes, the pain caused her to throw up. When she turned her head too quickly, she would feel woozy. One night, when she was editing a friend’s essay, her brain “went dead.”
“I was reading though the paper, and saw the word ‘shampoo.’ I read it and understood the concept, but I couldn’t pronounce it. Then half of my face went numb. I thought I was having a stroke,” Gómez said.
Gómez called her parents and considered going to the hospital, but she had an important exam the next day. She took the test—“I got an ‘A’ on it,” she recalled with pride—then checked herself into the emergency room at a local hospital in Cedar Rapids. A scan showed her brain was dangerously swollen. The doctors also found something else in Catarina’s head: A mass adjacent to her brain stem. They rushed her by ambulance to a nearby medical center.
Before the emergency, Gómez had a ten-year plan. Her father is an immigrant from Honduras, and she is passionate about immigration law and other social justice causes. Gómez has long considered herself an advocate—participating in rallies and helping organize a Hispanic heritage celebration at her high school—and planned to become an immigration attorney. From there, Gómez thought, maybe she would launch a career in politics.
As she left the college campus en route to the local hospital, she knew she wouldn’t be returning to class anytime soon. Her premonition proved true.
Gómez was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. There, specialists performed an emergency surgery to insert a drainage tube in her skull. Gómez was suffering from hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid around the brain. The fluid needed to be drained to reduce harmful pressure, which was causing her headaches. While she was surrounded by her friends and family, her medical team also took a closer look at the tumor in her head. They diagnosed it as ependymoma, a type of brain cancer that can affect the brain stem or spinal cord. The tumor was located in Gómez’ fourth ventricle, a fluid-filled space at the base of her brain.
“All pediatric brain tumors are rare, but within the universe of pediatric brain tumors, ependymomas are rarer still,” said Pediatric Neuro-Oncologist Christopher Moertel, MD, who treated Gómez when she arrived at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in late 2017.
By that time, surgeons in Iowa had successfully removed most of her tumor, but Gómez required additional radiation therapy to ensure the cancer didn’t return. Her Iowa team referred her to Moertel, a widely recognized expert on pediatric brain tumors.
Ependymoma has a high rate of recurrence, Moertel said. To minimize the risk of the surgery returning, Gómez underwent weeks of radiation therapy. Though the treatment regimen was physically exhausting, she kept her spirits high.
During her time in the hospital, Gómez met with Moertel to discuss a national clinical trial open for pediatric ependymoma patients. The trial is testing a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy, which may further reduce the risk of recurrence in ependymoma. For Gómez, that meant additional chemotherapy after she completed radiation, but her participation in the study could help others diagnosed with the disease.
At her next appointment, Gómez signed up. “There’s no way for us to step forward [toward a cure] without research and testing,” she said. “Beside this, I’ve been healthy my whole life. I would much rather deal with chemotherapy than see another child, a 4- or 5-year-old, go through that.”
Gómez’ selflessness left an impression on Moertel.
“This was a real act of courage,” Moertel said. “I have a deep appreciation for those individuals and families who participate in these clinical trials. Without them, we wouldn’t get the answers that can help the next generation of patients.”
Fast forward several months, and Gómez is nearly through with her chemotherapy treatment. Though she could face later complications—or a recurrence of cancer—her current outlook is bright.
Right now, Catarina plans to return to college this coming fall.
“I had a 10-year plan, and then I got cancer, so it’s now a 15-year plan,” she told WCCO, a local news station.
Her timeline isn’t the only aspect of her plan that’s changed. Though immigration law still holds a lot of appeal for Gómez, she was also inspired by the medical professionals she met along the way. Now, she’s thinking about pursuing a different field: medicine.
“I love working with everybody at University of Minnesota Health,” she said. “Their care and support really were unlike anything else I have ever experienced.”