Lifesaving work: Elli's story


When 19-year-old Elli Thatcher was assigned to the surgical waiting room of The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute as an Ohio State freshman student worker, she had no idea of the impact this job would have on her. She certainly didn’t know it would save her life.

At age 16, Thatcher started to notice that something was “off.” She often felt light-headed and her vision cut in and out. She knew this wasn’t normal, but doctors couldn’t figure out what was causing her issues. It wasn’t until three years later when she approached Matthew Old, MD, a surgical oncologist at The James whom she met through her job, to ask his opinion that she finally got her answer.

He ordered an examination, which revealed that Elli had a tumor in her neck the size of a baseball. This tumor was a vagal paraganglioma — an extremely rare type of tumor that sits on the vagus nerve and can disrupt functions such as hearing or speaking. If left untreated, it can lead to stroke and eventually death.

Vagal paragangliomas occur in about 1 in every 5 million people, explains Dr. Old. 

“Elli is inspirational. Imagine knowing something was wrong but being repeatedly told that you were fine. Elli had the drive to go find her answers and the persistence to fight through all her challenges,” says Dr. Old.

Her tumor was caused by a disease called hereditary paraganglioma syndrome, which doctors discovered was passed down to her through her grandmother. This disease can cause tumor formations in the head and neck.

“I still think about the day I got my diagnosis. It blows my mind how it all finally came together,” says Thatcher. “I wasn’t even scared. I just felt relieved to finally know what was wrong after all this time.”

The next step was a marathon of a surgery to remove the tumor. An all-day affair lasting 17 hours, this surgery involved opening Elli’s neck, disconnecting the tumor from her carotid artery (which was supplying it with blood) and removing it. 

While Thatcher’s surgery successfully removed the tumor, the tumor had damaged her vocal chords and paralyzed part of her tongue and the bottom half of her leg. She underwent vocal therapy and vocal augmentation surgery to strengthen her voice and help her swallow as well as physical therapy to improve her walking. Still today she undergoes vocal therapy to improve her speaking and swallowing, though has regained feeling and movement in her left leg.

Thatcher continues to attend Ohio State and work at The James, where she often speaks with patients and families undergoing similar challenges to help them through the treatment process. By sharing her experience, she hopes her story resonates with them.

“I would never wish that this hadn’t happened to me,” she says. “I want to share my experience with others in hopes that my story will help them through their own hardships.” 

Thatcher says her mentality can be summed up by a favorite saying of her grandmother’s: “Smile — life’s precious.” 

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