After nearly five years of marriage, things were finally coming together for Tony and Jessica MacDougall.
The Vancouver couple, who grew up as friends in Ridgefield, spent the first year of their relationship and two and a half years of their marriage living apart — Tony in Fairbanks, Alaska, working as a cold-weather mountaineering instructor for the Army, Jessica in Vancouver, working as a certified nursing assistant and finishing her degree to become a respiratory therapist.
Finally, in May 2014, Tony, with two tours in Iraq behind him, completed his military service and returned to Clark County. With Jessica working full time, it was Tony’s turn to pursue his education. He spent the last two years attending classes at Oregon Health & Science University to become a registered paramedic.
Tony, 29, completed his degree in September, passed all of his licensing tests in October and was offered his dream job: working as a paramedic for Clark County American Medical Response. With two full-time jobs on the horizon, the couple moved into a house of their own in the Burton area and were ready to start a family.
But then, Tony’s headaches started. And within a few weeks, Tony and Jessica received news they never prepared for: Tony had a brain tumor.
“We thought maybe it was a pinched nerve,” Tony said. “That thought never came to my mind.”
“Clinically, it makes sense,” said Jessica, 28. “Personally and emotionally, I was in denial for a couple weeks.”
The headaches started in late October, when Tony was studying for his licensing tests. He and Jessica chalked them up to stress and poor posture during hours-long study sessions.
“They felt like stress headaches,” Tony said. “They came on quickly and dissipated quickly.”
But Jessica noticed Tony was sleeping more. The man who typically thrived on just five hours of sleep a night, was suddenly sleeping 12 to 14 hours. Then the double-vision started. That’s what pushed Tony to see a doctor.
Tony went to urgent care and was sent home with information on the common headache and appointments for additional tests. But two days later, on Nov. 6, Tony got a severe headache and began vomiting. A friend took Tony to the emergency room at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center. Jessica, who works at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center in Gresham, Ore., had a bad feeling and left work early to meet Tony at the hospital.
She arrived just in time to learn her husband and best friend since she was 13 years old had brain tumor.
A pineal brain tumor sitting between Tony’s cerebellum and brain was blocking the flow of cerebral spinal fluid around his brain.
“His head was literally filling with fluid,” Jessica said.
Surgeons places an external ventriculostomy — a hole to allow the fluid to drain. A couple of days later, Tony underwent another procedure to have an internal drain placed so the external drain could later be removed.
During the procedure, surgeons tried to get a sample so they could identify the type of tumor but failed to get a viable sample. Without knowing what they’re working with, no physicians will treat the tumor. The only option is a risky surgery to remove the mass.
The 12- to 14-hour procedure is scheduled for today.
“They’ll grab it and remove it, piece by piece,” Tony said of the tumor. “As much as they can.”
If the tumor has begun to thread into the ocular area or brain stem, Tony’s surgeon will stop the procedure there. Pathology will determine if the tumor is cancerous and whether the remaining tissue can be treated with medication, radiation or chemotherapy.
Risks and recovery
The surgery comes with a long list of risks and possible side effects; the degree of which Tony will experience them is dependant on how much of the tumor is removed, how much remains and where it’s located. His ability to walk, talk and swallow may all be compromised. He’s also at risk for seizures, strokes and blood clots.
“The upside,” Tony said, “is I’m young, healthy, fairly fit.”
“And stubborn,” Jessica added.
The discovery of the tumor means Tony won’t be able to start work on Dec. 12 as planned. He’s asked to have his start date extended, hoping he’ll recover from the surgery with minimal side effects and be ready to begin work in February.
But there’s also the possibility that Tony’s recovery could take a year or more, leaving the couple to face his medical bills with only Jessica’s income. Tony has insurance through Jessica’s employer and is working to get enrolled for benefits through Veterans Affairs. He never signed up for VA coverage before because he didn’t want to take services that others needed more.
But because Tony’s procedures are taking place at the end of the year, the couple will hit their $5,000 deductible this year and likely again early next year, when Tony needs rehab or follow-up care.
“We’ve been doing the paycheck-to-paycheck thing for a while,” Jessica said. “We’ve been good, but we have no disposable income.”
So, Jessica started a GoFundMe account. Tony thought the couple may raise $1,000 to $2,000 from family and close friends. In two weeks, the account has received more than $13,000 in donations.
“He said, ‘Give it a week. Nobody will care about my tumor,'” Jessica said of Tony. “It’s been two weeks. They still care.”
After Tony recovers from the surgery, the couple is hopeful he can begin his career as a paramedic and continue volunteering with Silver Star Search and Rescue. They also hope to start the family they’ve put on hold.
“We’re hoping this is just a one-year, tumor-sized road bump,” Jessica said. “And after that, we’ll get back on track.”