WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Three years ago, Lauren Warden started to experience what she thought were regular headaches. But, her symptoms soon began to worsen, reducing her quality of life.
“Excruciating pain, 24/7,” Lauren explains. “I was losing memory.”
Warden’s memory was becoming so poor, she had to resort to putting sticky notes all over her home for reminders. She started to lose her vision and was sick to her stomach. When her peripheral vision was reduced, she decided it was time for a visit to her primary care physician.
She brought her youngest child, then 7-year-old Tanner, with her.
“They thought I just had a regular brain tumor, and then that’s when things got real, really quick,” Lauren recalls. “My heart sank.”
Lauren and Tanner then drove to a Burger King parking lot to meet her husband, Richard.
“Tanner opened the door and told his dad that mommy had a brain tumor and I just lost it,” Lauren says. “That was the first time Tanner saw me truly cry.”
The next step was an MRI, which revealed a new diagnosis. A neurologist diagnosed Lauren with pseudotumor cerebri, which mimics symptoms of a brain tumor and increases pressure around the brain.
“You can either cry about it or just go about your day,” Lauren says. “I just went about my day.”
That’s when the local neurologist suggested Lauren drive two hours from Virginia, to Winston-Salem, to see Dr. Rashid Janjua, a neurosurgeon at Novant Health Brain and Spine.
Janjua explained that the disease caused her brain to be like a pressure cooker.
“There are three things inside your skull,” Janjua explains. “Brain, blood and spinal fluid.”
Janjua proposed a brain shunt, which would drain the excess fluid.
“Imagine for yourself, a pressure cooker,” Janjua details. “When the pressure in the pressure cooker gets too high, steam lets off. The same principle here, when the pressure gets too high in the head, spinal fluid lets off and it goes down to the belly.”
“When we talked about brain surgery I completely blacked out,” Lauren says. “It’s nothing that a 27-year-old wants to hear, with three children and a husband.”
Although Lauren admits it shouldn’t have been, she says losing her hair was the hardest part of having the surgery.
“My hair was so long, and beautiful, and thick and that was just part of my identity. When I lost it, my kids had never seen staples before and they were just scared,” Lauren explains. “Our youngest one would have nothing to do with me for two weeks, which killed me.”
To make matters worse, her pain didn’t subside.
“It was very depressing. I had scars all over me. It was heartbreaking. And at that point, that’s when I lost my faith,” she says. “It was, ‘what did I do wrong for my children to deserve this?’”
The surgeries also continued. Janjua was set to perform a lumbar shunt in October 2017, when Lauren had a panic attack.
“I sat at her bedside and held her hand and she felt better, because she with both hands, she grabbed my hand and held onto it and she fell asleep,” Janjua says. “That was a half-hour of my time and an eternity for her.”
That moment created a bond between the two, which continues to develop to this day.
“The difficulty in being a neurosurgeon is to be able to decide when you are the surgeon, when you’re the human and when you are the doctor,” Janjua says.
The surgeries were nearing double digits. Along the way, Tanner told Lauren to listen to a song called “Scars” by the band I Am They. It was then that she realized she needed to embrace her scars. Her faith returned and she began going to church once more.
It was time for more drastic measures. Dr. Janjua explained a cranial expansion procedure as a last resort.
“Imagine for yourself that you have a box and the box is overstuffed. So, the box is almost busting at the seams. It’s gift-wrapped and there’s only two solutions to having the box really that stuffed,” Janjua explains.
The process began with Dr. George Lawson, at Forsyth Plastic Surgery. Lawson inserted tissue expanders under Lauren’s skin, to make room for what would be a larger skull to accommodate her brain.
Weeks later, the day of her final procedure had arrived.
“She doesn’t wear a cape, but she definitely deserves one,” Janjua says. “She is a super woman.”
Lauren arrived at the hospital at 5:30 in the morning. When she was taken into the OR, she found the room decorated with pictures of her brain.
“I asked them why was my brain everywhere, and they said, ‘it’s a GPS, to tell us where to go,’” Lauren remembers.
Larson started the procedure by removing the spacers. Janjua then cut and readjusted about 80 percent of Lauren’s skull on the left side of her head.
“She was the one who did 99 percent of the work,” Janjua says. “I just supported her through the journey and then finally did the surgery. She gets all the credit.”
For the first time in years, Lauren woke up with no pain.
“I have my life back,” she says. I’m fully blessed, my children’s lives are back to normal, my husband’s happy, I’m the mom I’m supposed to be.”
Not only has she regained her life, and the normal life of her family, but that family has now grown in the form of the man who helped her through her journey.
“I love him very much, and I know that he was not gonna give up on me, and he never gave up on me, and to hear that, it was, it makes me cry,” Lauren says, of Janjua. “I mean, he’s an amazing man.”
Janjua now has a picture of Lauren and her family, including Richard and sons Alex, 13, Stanley, 11 and Tanner, who’s now 10. He looks at it every workday.
“We did not know that we would end up here,” he says. “She is an enormously strong woman.”
Saturday marked six months since Lauren’s final surgery.