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Dark moments on Golden Gate Bridge led to life transforming medical procedure

By Sara Donchey and Molly McCrea

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    SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — You never know what life is going to throw in your path. Just ask Debbie Menzies.

Four years ago, Menzies found herself at the Golden Gate Bridge, intending to die by suicide, but what happened next was totally unexpected and simply astonishing.

“It’s amazing! Talk about perfect timing,” Menzies exclaimed.

“I look at it as a miracle,” added her husband, Robert.

Menzies, who is middle-aged, had finally reached the end of her rope.

“I just could not deal with it anymore,” she told KPIX.

‘It’ was a lifetime of uncontrolled seizures and a persistent depression.

As a small child, doctors had diagnosed Menzies with epilepsy. She had tried many medications to try to quell the seizures, but the drugs had little effect. To make matters worse, several times a day, she felt strange electrical sensations in her head. These are known as auras and may or may not be followed by an actual seizure.

That led to decades of feeling deeply despondent. Menzies always sensed that her diagnosis was off, but her doctors assured her they were correct in their assessment.

“I’ve lived a life wondering – what is wrong with me?,” she said. “There is something else wrong with me it’s not just epilepsy.”

Back on the bridge, she was about to jump.

“At that point, I felt a tap on my shoulder,” she recounted.

An alert bridge worker noticed Menzies’ demeanor, stopped her and called an ambulance.

Menzies happened to be in-between insurance coverage. She was taken and admitted to an unfamiliar medical center — Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

The medical team had never seen her before. They were baffled by her uncontrolled seizures and called the doctor on duty for a consult. UCSF neurologist Dr. Paul Garcia, an expert in seizures, came to Menzies room.

“Each individual seizure is like a puzzle,” said Dr. Garcia.

Dr. Garcia only goes to SFGH a few times a year. That weekend, he was on call and ready to do the consult.

“She’s a memorable person,” he said. “I remember her being very clear about the symptoms she was having.”

Menzies told him that when she had a seizure, people described her as smiling, and even bursting into laughter. That symptom caught the doctor’s attention. He has seen cases like this one and had a hunch.

“And he asked me ‘Have you ever had a brain MRI?’. And I said no,” Menzies said.

He then ordered an MRI. The results?

“I couldn’t believe it. It shocked me,” Debbie’s husband Robert said.

On the MRI, deep inside Menzies brain was exactly what Dr. Garcia suspected: a tiny benign growth about the size of a lemon seed.

The growth was putting pressure on a critical part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus manages a lot, including a part of your nervous system as well as your mood.

“Anything that alters the circuitry of the hypothalamus is like throwing a monkey wrench in one of the major control centers of the brain,” noted Dr. Garcia.

The benign growth is a rare condition called a hypothalamic hamartoma. The congenital condition is typically diagnosed in children.

As for treatment — In Menzies case, doctors recommended brain surgery.

“And I said – sign me up,” she exclaimed.

Easier said than done.

“So, the location of the hypothalamus turns out to be pretty much in the middle of the head,” said top UCSF neurosurgeon Dr. Edward Chang. “There are a variety of ways that you can get there almost all of which are dangerous.”

Dr. Chang is chair of the department of Neurological Surgery at UCSF, and he treats patients with epilepsy, brain tumorsand cranial nerve compression symptoms.

He had a cutting-edge plan in place for Menzies hypothalamic hamartoma: laser thermal ablation. The operation would take four hours, but most of that time would be getting the medical instruments precisely in place. Precision is key. One millimeter off, and damage to the brain could occur.

Dr. Chang inserted a very thin probe through a tiny hole in Menzies head.

Using GPS coordinates, he guided it precisely to the tiny growth. On the tip of the probe is a laser, that when activated heated up the tissue and destroyed the growth.

Immediately after surgery, Menzies seizures and depression immediately ceased.

“It’s quite a new life, quite a new, new start,” exclaimed Robert.

Her doctors are thrilled.

“I feel really honored that i have the opportunity to take care of Debbie,” said Dr. Chang.

“It’s tremendously gratifying,” added Dr. Garcia.

As for Debbie, she told us if she had not met all these people – the bridge worker, the medical team at SFGH, Dr. Garcia, and then Dr. Chang, she very well could have gone to her grave with this growth in her head.

Little did Menzies know that when she was in the depths of despair, that she would end up being at the right place, at the right time, to meet the right people. The unlikely series of events would end up solving a true medical mystery.

“All iI can say is that I owe my life to them,” she exclaimed.

Dr. Garcia said that he does see hypothalamic hamartomas in adults and suspects some patients will go undiagnosed. For those living with uncontrolled seizures, he advised that it always is prudent to get an appointment at a major medical center for an assessment, and to never give up hope.

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