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The Kindest Cut
by Stacy Hayashi, San Gabriel Valley Tribune

Her hands and feet were getting larger. Her bike helmet didn't fit anymore. Her jaw seemed to have shifted, giving her an underbite she could have sworn she did not have before. Then, there were the aching joints, the snoring, high blood pressure, headaches, and finally increasing blindness that convinced Adrian Griffin, 44, of Pasadena, that something was terribly wrong.

Later, a medical diagnosis revealed the problem. Griffin had an avocado-sized brain tumor and her symptoms were all tell-tale signs of a rare hormonal disorder called acromegaly, that results when the pituitary gland (attached to the brain) produces excess amounts of growth hormone.

Griffin's tumor, though itself benign, had the consistency of rubber and was pressing down on her optic nerve, making her nearly blind. Her 7-year-old son Miles Griffin-Johnson used to bring her a newspaper, so she would muster a smile for him, although all she could see were shadows and a faint baseball cap. She did not have to tell him she was going blind; he knew something was wrong.

"I can't wait to feel better to take care of him," said Griffin of her son. "This has been the hardest thing: It's one thing to be sick, it's another thing to be sick as a mom."

The disorder affects about three in every 1 million people, according to the Pituary Network Association. One of the problems with diagnosis is that the symptoms develop slowly and gradually.

Tumors like Griffin's are notorious for growing unnoticed, said Dr. Hrayr Shahinian, the medical director of the Skull Base Institute where Griffii had her tumor successfully removed on June 6.

Griffin is now in remission with her vision completely restored and tumor completely removed after having undergone a fully endoscopic surgery, meaning no incisions. This procedure was pioneered by Dr. Shahinian.

Since its inception in 1996, the Skull Base Institute has been relying on methods markedly different from the traditional craniotomy still most common in treating tumors and abnormalities like Griffin's, a process that relies on a long ear-to-ear incision and as well as cutting open the revealed skull.

"Ninety-eight to 99 percent of surgeons are still relying on the traditional technique," said Dr. Shahinian.

The endoscopic procedures Dr. Shahinian practices are part ancient Egyptian discovery, part modem-day fiber optic technology.

Inspired by a early '90s television program on the ancient Egyptian practice of embalming their pharaohs, Dr. Shahinian probed further the idea of using the natural passage connecting nostril to brain. Now, Dr. Shahinian uses a fine 2.7 millimeter fiber optic scope (with a camera at the tip) and a high definition monitor to guide the surgical processes. He believes that the likelihood of surgery-related complications are reduced tenfold by using endoscopy.

Dr. Shahinian explained that some surgeons are hesitant to switch methods, whether it is because of re-training or a reluctance to shift from traditional methods. Despite these medical skeptics, Griffin was thoroughly persuaded.

A few days before her scheduled surgery, Griffin had to go to the Huntington Hospital because of side-splitting headaches. The pain persisted despite painkillers and she was only able to make out shadows with one eye.

"It would have been more scary if I wasn't in so much pain," said Griffiin. "I can't even call it a headache... I was throwing up, couldn't eat, and I felt like my head was going to explode, they gave me a shot for the pain, morphine, which made me feel more relaxed, but my head still hurt."

In spite of all this, she still opted to wait for Dr. Shahinian to return from a trip to Japan to have her tumor removed by him at the institute.

The doctors at Huntington offered an alternative treatment, a transsphenoidal procedure that would have required an incision on the lip and a spine splint. It offered a lesser chance of full remission, and a longer stay in the hospital, she said.

"They couldn't help me, so I just came home, sat at home in the dark, holding my head after the severe headache," said Griffin.

Even when she was in the grips of this pain, her spirit never faltered, recalled her older sister.

"When she was in the most pain, she never gave up that spirit, never said 'Why me?'" said Marsha Griffin. Marsha Griffin makes daily visits to make sure her sister's needs are taken care of. Griffin is divorced.

Throughout this experience, Griffin hasnot lost her sense of humor.

"Leave it to me to get the weird disease!" she said.

Griffin taught English to foreign-speaking students at the California School for Culinary Arts in Pasadena before she fell ill. She also was a yoga instructor for 10 years, something she can no longer do.

"I've always been a teacher," said Griffin. "Talking about (her ordeal) educates other people about the disease. I'm big on that.

"I don't want anyone to go through what I went through. You go through a lot with this disease, it's very insidious.

"So I can't do yoga," she said. "Now I'll do Tai Chi. Nothing's going to stop me!"