By Kim Walter
STRASBURG - Six months after brain surgery, diagnosis of epilepsy and series of unfortunate setbacks, 41-year-old Summer Abruzere is ready to share her story.
Up until this point, the mother of three has done what she can to keep her experiences to herself, fearing shame and public embarrassment. However, upon meeting an important goal along her road to recovery, she said she has realized it's time to accept the cards she's been dealt in order to possibly help someone else in a similar situation.
Abruzere, of Strasburg, spent much of her adult life devoted to helping others. After graduating from Strasburg High School, she went on to take classes at Lord Fairfax Community College and Shepherd University. Over the years, she worked for Grafton, Piedmont Laboratories, Valley Health and a rescue squad. She also enjoyed coaching local softball and volleyball teams.
Last year, while working for Winchester Medical Center Behavioral Health, Abruzere was injured on the job and had to have surgery on her knee. Post-surgery, her knee gave out while she was in the shower, resulting in a head injury.
In January, a scan of her brain revealed a completely different issue.
"My doctor came in the room and just flat out told me I had a tumor," she said recently, sitting in her parents' home. "They found it by accident."
Her mother, Gwen Abruzere, explained that the tumor was a meningioma, located on the back left side, between her daughter's skull and brain.
A meningioma typically displays little to no symptoms, and is usually benign. Summer Abruzere's tumor was so large and developed, that doctor's suggested it might have been there for years, possibly dating back to when she was a teenager.
"We kind of have a history of headaches in our family, so if that was a symptom, we never knew," her mother said.
The tumor was found on Jan. 3, and Summer Abruzere had the surgery to remove it on Jan. 22. She said she only told her immediate family about the issue, but even that took some courage.
"I actually emailed my two brothers and sister about it," she said, tearing up. "I didn't know if I could say it to their faces."
According to Abruzere's mother, her daughter tried to make light of it when she told her siblings.
"She's always been very outspoken and independent," Gwen Abruzere said. "I think she just wanted to get it over with and move on."
Summer Abruzere's procedure was done in about three hours at Winchester Medical Center. Once removed, the tumor was the size of a small lemon. Thankfully, she said she didn't have to shave a portion of her head for surgery.
After the surgery, which resulted in 37 staples on her head, Abruzere stayed in the hospital for another five days. She said from the moment she "came to" she was anxious to get out and get back to her life.
However, it became apparent that the recovery process would not be an easy one.
Gwen Abruzere said she her daughter thought she would get the surgery and jump right back into where she left off. "But that's just not how it worked out."
Summer Abruzere had trouble walking and talking for some time, and still struggles with a speech impediment.
The real trouble came in the following months, though, when she experienced several concussions.
On one occasion, Abruzere was helping to keep score at a local softball game -- it was one way for her to feel involved again, and she was able to watch her youngest daughter play. While sitting outside a dugout, a softball came straight down on top of her head, resulting in a seizure and stomach sickness.
Another time, Abruzere was involved in a car accident as a passenger, which sent her to the emergency room.
Her mother said that there was no internal bleeding, "but the seizures were getting worse.
"We think that might've been what really brought the epilepsy on."
Over time, Summer Abruzere's parents, daughters and close friends have learned to recognize when a seizure is beginning. Her mother said she gets a glazed look and begins to convulse or rock back and forth.
Abruzere said she has had many moments of frustration from the diagnosis, between the multiple medications, the constant worry of what will cause a seizure and the social stigma that comes with it.
"I didn't want people to think differently of me," she said. "I wanted to do things my way, and for a long time that meant keeping my distance and not saying anything."
Dr. Paul Lyons, an epileptologist with Winchester Neurological Consultants, Inc., has been monitoring Abruzere's diagnosis. He said it's not uncommon for people to misunderstand the condition.
"When a patient is dealing with epilepsy, they're dealing with more than just seizures," he said. "This affects employment, driving, stress and anxiety levels ... it really impacts their ability to navigate through daily life."
Lyons acknowledged the stigma that Abruzere feared, and said the diagnosis can sometimes have power over patients.
"It's important that you don't say 'I'm an epileptic.' That suggests that you are your disease," he said. "Instead, it should be like saying you have to take insulin or wear glasses."
Sometimes internal stress can cause seizures, and Lyons said that if a person with epilepsy can get past the stigma and accept their condition, it can be empowering.
According to Lyons, Abruzere has come a long way, especially in the past couple of months.
One of her goals was to do one thing independently. Although she has had to move in with her parents, she recently got the opportunity to walk dogs around town -- by herself.
Her mother worried about that for a while.
"The first few times I was texting her every two minutes asking where she was, if she was OK ... all that," Gwen Abruzere's said. "But Summer is a bit hard headed, and I guess in this case, it was a good thing."
As time goes on, Summer Abruzere said she hopes to start volunteering and possibly substitute teaching at one of the local public schools. Eventually, she said she would like to get back to having her own place.
Abruzere said some days are tougher than others, and she gets angry with the way things have turned out. However, having a supportive family and a few devoted friends keep her going.
She said she hopes that by sharing her story, she may come to know others in the community with similar experiences.
"There have to be other people out there like me," she said. "But, you know, I guess I've been through worse ... everything is going to be alright."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org