The living proof Diane Aikens: One year removed from brain surgery, Loyola's women's lacrosse coach shows great progress in her recovery and the power of positive thinking.

March 29, 1996|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Hugs shared, prayers said, Diane Aikens is wheeled into the operating room at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Brain surgery awaits. A medical team hovers over the patient, prepping her for the five-hour ordeal. The room is bright, cold, quiet. Too quiet, Aikens decides.

Before nodding off, she summons her strength and, with impeccable timing, delivers the punch line:

"All my life, people have been trying to see what's been going on inside my head, and now you guys get to do it."

One year later, Aikens says she can still hear the nurses laughing beneath their surgical masks.

If anyone can find humor in a tumor, it's Aikens, Loyola College's unflappable women's lacrosse coach and assistant athletic director. Last March 30, surgeons removed a 1-inch lump from the back of her brain. The tumor proved benign. Aikens rebounded as though from the flu. Within 10 days she was back at practice, holding skull sessions with her team.

Two weeks after the craniotomy, she coached the Greyhounds to victory in a game in Richmond, Va. Aikens paced the sidelines early on, refusing to sit until halftime.

"I was determined to come back fast," she says.

Her progress surprised doctors. "Diane's vigor is amazing," says Dr. Henry Brem, head of neurosurgical oncology at Hopkins. "There is no self-pity, no why-did-it-happen-to-me. She just wants to get back to her full schedule.

"People are frightened of brain surgery, but Diane is a good role model for people who want to put this behind them and get on with their lives."

Aikens has done that. Normalcy has returned for the 33-year-old coach, wife and mother of four. Her hair has grown back; the tumor has not. Brain scans show no signs of the growth, though Dr. Brem, who performed the operation, says there is "a significant chance" that it eventually will recur: This type tumor can be as stubborn as Aikens herself.

Drugs help suppress the seizures that can strike like aftershocks, for a year or more, after brain surgery. The medication has slowed Aikens, disrupting her fast-paced lifestyle. Big deal. In a 45-rpm world, she no longer moves at 78.

Maybe that's best, she says. Before she was forced to hit the brakes, it was hard to see the roses, much less stop and smell them.

"I've changed inside," says Aikens. "I'm thankful for little things -- a beautiful day, a hug from grandma, a field trip with one of my kids. At family functions, instead of putting off picture-taking until next time, I'll take three rolls of film of everyone there.

"I never felt I was going to die, but I've learned to count my blessings. Call it a reality check."

First signs of trouble

Two years ago, Aikens' tumor began sending up flares. On a family camping trip, she awoke with an anvil in her head. Once up, she began falling down. Her left leg refused to follow orders. "It was like the leg wasn't there," says Aikens, who tried to walk and nearly fell in the campfire.

Later, she learned she had had a seizure, an electrical misfiring in the brain. "Seizures are red flags, early warnings that something is wrong," says Dr. Brem. Generally, he says, patients who have tumor-related seizures stand a better chance of survival than those who do not, because the growth is caught early on.

Aikens ignored the warnings. The month before the camping trip, she managed to deliver her last child and lead Loyola to the national semifinals -- her fourth birth and a Final Four berth. The vacation upset her balance, she believed. "I thought my body was rejecting rest," she says.

She promised to see a doctor if the attacks continued. They did. She didn't.

For nine months, Aikens suffered seizures, not knowing when or where or even why they would occur. At times her speech was slurred, her vision blurred. She kept silent. "I don't like to ask for help," she says.

In February 1995, Aikens collapsed in front of Loyola's athletic trainer, who persuaded her to seek medical attention. A brain scan screamed tumor. A second examination verified it. Surgery was set. Aikens wept for 1 1/2 minutes, then began organizing her affairs.

A positive attitude

To her family, she left a three-page list of household chores to complete during her absence. At work, she refused to cancel appointments and left several folders open on her desk. "I kept a positive attitude," she says.

Support streamed in from family and friends. Aikens, who is Catholic, received rosaries and religious medals, healing tapes and holy water. Her lacrosse team pitched in to clean her Gardenville home. For three weeks, co-workers prepared meals for Aikens' husband, Bob, and their children, then ages 1 to 9. Checks arrived to help pay medical expenses, including $6,000 from the Greater Baltimore Chapter of the Lacrosse Foundation. Rival coaches, players, even referees wished Aikens well.

"I'd never experienced such an outpouring of kindness," Bob Aikens says. "It almost seemed unfair that, with so many needy people in the world, we were getting all this love."

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