Climbing trees and using a chainsaw are all in a day’s work for urban forester Kalia Furnari who works with her boyfriend, Chris McCormick, who runs a tree trimming company. Active, fit and full of positive energy, you would never guess Kalia, age 40, has also battled a mysterious and often painful medical condition almost her entire life.
“I never felt right. My body felt heavy and I sometimes had migraines that would leave part of my face temporarily paralyzed,” said Kalia, who grew up in Springfield, MA and now lives in Connecticut. About three years ago, her condition worsened and Kalia had regular flare-ups of excruciating nerve pain. “I couldn’t work, I couldn’t put shoes on, it hurt to shower. I had over 15 migraines a month. I blacked out. You would think someone died, the way I would cry. The pain was bad – and I have a really high pain tolerance so it was not in my nature to be like that,” she said.
SOLVING THE MYSTERY
Over the decades, Kalia visited many types of specialists throughout New England and underwent test after test. These appointments would lead to temporary relief of some of her symptoms, but no one could find the source of her condition. On her own, she tried any treatment and lifestyle change she could, including sugar-free and gluten-free diets for her migraines. Although some people called her a hypochondriac, she knew her experience was real. It was frustrating, but she continued to search for an answer.
After an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging test) at Baystate Medical Center showed abnormalities in her brain, neurologist Dr. William House confirmed that Kalia had suffered from a stroke during one of her last episodes. With this knowledge, he referred her to Baystate Cardiology in Northampton for an echocardiogram with PA (physician assistant) Nancy Logan. Kalia's echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) showed a rare type of tumor the size of a baseball.
CARDIAC MYXOMA: A RARE HEART TUMOR
This tumor (a cardiac myxoma) was like a gelatinous blob moving around, covering and uncovering her heart valve, which meant her heart wasn’t always receiving the oxygenated blood it needed.
Pieces of the tumor were also floating to her brain, which caused both her stroke and her ongoing nerve pain and other lifelong symptoms. When PA Nancy Logan saw the echocardiogram, she moved quickly and called an ambulance to get Kalia to the Harold Grinspoon & Diane Troderman Adult Emergency Department at Baystate Medical Center.
“When I heard the diagnosis,” Kalia said, “my first response wasn’t so much fear as it was relief that I finally knew what the problem was after all these years. I can’t thank Baystate Health enough for that.”
A TICKING TIME BOMB
Kalia was scheduled for open heart surgery at Baystate’s Davis Family Heart & Vascular Center to remove the tumor on September 11, a day she later named her rebirthday.
Cardiac surgeon Dr. Kelly Wanamaker said, “I knew I needed to remove the tumor. With every heartbeat, there was a potential risk of harm. It was a ticking time bomb.”
Kalia was nervous about surgery. She worried about if she would make it through and what if she didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to her boyfriend, Chris, and her family. “Dr. Wanamaker calmed me down, explained what she and her team would do and gave me a chance to ask questions,” Kalia said. “She was also good at talking with my mom. With Dr. Wanamaker, I felt a connection and was completely comfortable with her. She put me at ease.”
Dr. Wanamaker said she and Kalia had a great patient- surgeon relationship and both fed off the others’ positive energy. “Before surgery,” Dr. Wanamaker said, “it’s important to me to get to know each of my patients and understand what their lifestyle is like. I could see that Kalia was motivated to improve her quality of life and get back to her job. Our goal is to get patients back to the life that they were living, but even better.”
THE SCAR OF HONOR
Dr. Wanamaker removed Kalia’s tumor and completed the operation with her expert cardiac surgery team. Kalia has a long scar on her chest from the surgery. “I call it the seam that holds me together,” Kalia said, smiling. “Dr. Wanamaker did an amazing job.”
Like a warrior, Kalia considers the scar her badge of honor. It reminds her of everything she went through and accomplished.
RECOVERING AT HER OWN PACE
After the surgery, Kalia recovered at Baystate Medical Center. “I’ll always remember one Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) in particular who really made me feel at home.” Having been a CNA before studying to become an arborist, Kalia appreciated her care team even more. “I know how busy everyone is, but they never made me feel like they were rushing and trying to hurry me up,” Kalia said. “Right from the get go, I knew Baystate Health was the best place to be. The care is innovative and on point.”
Kalia also appreciated Baystate Health’s visitor policy. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Baystate Health limited the number of visitors in the hospital for the safety of patients and caregivers. Kalia says she didn’t mind these restrictions since they made her feel safer. She talked on the phone with friends and family for “visits.”
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
Looking back on her decades of struggle with her health, Kalia’s advice to others is, “Even if people say you’re crazy, know you know yourself. Don’t give up. Keep pushing and be your own advocate. I really want to help people not go through what I did.”
“I feel normal now and it’s great to be able to drag brush and move without getting dizzy,” she said.
As Kalia wrote on social media after her surgery, “It’s a whole new world and I’m glad to be a part of it still.”
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