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Brittany Donnelly helped in local fund drive

By ROXANNE DASS, Star Press Union reporter

Brittany Donnelly

Brittany Donnelly, 22, has no room for pessimism in her life. Instead, she chooses to stay upbeat and positive, even when facing tough challenges in her life.

Brittany is now facing such a challenge. She was recently diagnosed with an inoperable tumor located on her brainstem, but she refuses to let her condition get her down.

“I’ve always had a happy-go-lucky attitude. I don’t know what it’s like to be upset,” she said. “For me I choose not to lay around and cry and be angry. I don’t know how to be that kind of person.”

For the past four years, Brittany has lived and worked in Vinton. She worked at Virginia Gay Hospital, Vinton. She was also a part-time student as Kirkwood Community College studying to be a physical therapist assistant.

Beginning last year, Brittany started having severe headaches.

“I didn’t think much of it,” she said. “I just continued working and fought through the pain.”

Brittany was scheduled for her annual physical on Sept. 19. Since she was going to be in the doctor’s office, Brittany decided she would bring up her headaches.

Dr. Michelle Elgin, Brittany’s physician, became worried when Brittany explained her problem. She ordered an MRI for Brittany two days later.

Brittany went to Vinton for her MRI on Sept. 21. After the procedure, she went home, but received a phone call two hours later. The MRI technician found something suspect and wanted Dr. Elgin to go over it with Brittany.

Dr. Elgin explained she had noticed something wrong and sent Brittany to the University of Iowa emergency room.

“I got there at 7 in the evening and that started my almost 40 day stay at the hospital,” she said.

The doctors found a brain tumor on her brain stem. The tumor was blocking a drainage hole at the base of her skull. The blockage would not allow her brain fluid to drain, which built up pressure on her brain, causing the headaches.

Brittany’s mother, Jackie, said the news hit the family hard.

Donnelly benefit
Brittany Donnelly at the benefit for her at the Keystone Turner Hall.

“I was devastated, we were devastated at first,” she said.

Brittany underwent four surgeries while she was at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. The first was to remove any damage the tumor had caused. Doctor’s couldn’t remove the tumor itself, though, because it is located so close to her “command center.”

“If they operated on it, I wouldn’t be able to walk, talk or much else,” she said.

The surgeons also created a new drainage hole in her skull to help take pressure off her brain and doctor’s took a biopsy of the tumor.

The headaches didn’t improve, so Brittany had a second surgery. A blood clot has formed in front of the new drainage hole. After the second surgery, Brittany was able to go home, but after two or three days she started to vomit and had a high fever.

Brittany was rushed to the emergency room where doctors performed a spinal tap and discovered she had meningitis. She would have to stay in the hospital once again.

The new drainage hole doctors made for Brittany was not doing it’s job, so she prepared for a third surgery. The doctors inserted a ventricular catheter, a plastic tube inserted into Brittany’s brainstem that helped drain excess brain fluid outside her body.

“The nurses had to put all these clamps along the catheter so the fluid would drain at the right rate and the tube had to be level with certain heights,” she said. “They had to use a construction level to make sure everything was perfectly straight. I couldn’t move, if I did, they had to level everything off again.”

The headaches still kept coming, though. That is when doctors decided on a fourth surgery. A shunt was placed in Brittany’s neck and a small catheter was attached to the shunt. The catheter drained brain fluid internally to Brittany’s abdomen and flushed from her body in that way.

During those 40 days, Jackie never left her daughter’s side. Jackie took a leave of absence from her job at the Benton County Health Department to take care of her daughter.

“I knew where I had to be and it was with my daughter,” she said.

Brittany called Jackie her “biggest advocate.”

“She’s always there to support me and she is always by my side,” said Brittany. “I don’t know what I would do without her.”

Despite the multiple surgeries and setbacks, Brittany still kept her sunny attitude and enjoyed her life as much as she could.

“The nurses told us they had never met a person Brittany’s age with such a good attitude,” said Jackie. “And we always had a good time with the nurses on Brittany’s floor. We even had a water fight in the room, pouring water and throwing ice at each other.”


Brittany’s tumor is a rare condition. The type of tumor she has is usually seen in very young children. These children rarely survive the treatment. The condition is also seen in older adults, but the tumor is not embedded in the brain stem. It is located on the outside of the brain stem and can usually be removed.

There are very few people Brittany’s age with this tumor and fewer yet where the tumor is embedded in the brain stem. Because of the rarity of the condition, surgeons and doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics had no case studies of Brittany’s form of cancer.

“The doctor’s didn’t have anything that told them how to treat the tumor or how to go about it,” she said.

That is why Brittany transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The clinic’s pathology department was the group who discovered this kind of tumor in the 1980s. Mayo Clinic has had 100 case studies of such conditions.

“I absolutely loved my doctors and nurses at the University. They were top notch,” she said. “Mayo may only have 100 case studies, but that’s 100 more than they have at Iowa City.”

Doctors are still researching the cause of the tumor, whether it is genetic or environmental factors. But, doctors are leaning towards environmental factors because of similar backgrounds and exposure of different patients.

For now, the only long term treatment is to monitor the tumor, said Brittany. She has to go in every few months for an MRI to track any changes in the tumor. Once doctors notice a big change, Brittany will undergo 28 days of low dose radiation.


Support for Brittany has been overwhelming. She not only has support from her family and friends, but support from the entire community.

“The community support has been awesome,” said Brittany. “I’ve been getting cards from not just people I know, but even people I don’t know.”

One gift she received was from Marilyn and Don Duncalf’s daughter, Angie. Angie had also battled cancer and won. While Angie was fighting her cancer, her brother-in-law visited the Vatican and gave her a cross necklace that had been blessed by the Pope.

Angie, who had never met Brittany, sent her the cross for her battle.

“I haven’t taken the cross off since I received it,” said Brittany. “I am so thankful for the support of every one in the community.”


Since that fateful day in September, Brittany’s life has changed. Because she needs to be under constant monitoring, Brittany had to quit her job and school to move back home with her parents. Brittany’s boyfriend, Rodger Hawkins, Vinton, continues to care for Brittany’s apartment while she is away.

While Brittany was at the University of Iowa, she was so inspired by her nurses she thought about changing career paths by enrolling in nursing school. She hit another road block, though.

“Because of the shunt, I can’t push, pull or lift anything more than 50 pounds for the rest of my life,” she said. “So that means no physical therapy or nursing.”

Brittany doesn’t let that get her down.

“It was a little frustrating at first, but I’m just going to have to research other jobs in the medical field I can do,” she said in her upbeat voice.

Brittany’s family is without stress as well. Jackie said she has her moments when she wants to cry.

“I try to have those away from Brittany. I save it for when I’m with friends or co-workers,” she said. “Brittany is such a fighter and I want fight with her.”

Jackie also has trouble between wanting to be the overprotective mother and acknowledging her daughter is a young women with her life to live.

“On one hand, if I could wrap my arms around and keep her constantly at my side, I would,” she said. “But I know I have to try to let her live her life as a 22 year old as much as she can.”

One thing that remains the same is Brittany’s pay-it-forward attitude and her zeal for life. Despite her illness Brittany still continues to have concern for others and continues to fight her cancer to the end.

Jackie always told Brittany as a young girl, “It is what it is and we’ll do what we have to do,” during hard times.

“Brittany always hated it when I said that because she thought I was giving up,” said Jackie. “I wasn’t giving up, I was just saying I will do whatever it is I have to do to get things done.”

Jackie said the day Brittany truly understand her mantra was while she was in the hospital in Iowa City. Jackie asked Brittany if she knew her life was going to be forever changed.

“Brittany just turned to me and said, ‘Mom, it is what it is and I’m going to do what I have to do,’” said Jackie. “I burst into tears because I knew Brittany understood and she was going to give it her all.”

UPDATED January 31, 2009 2:09 PM

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