True Stories: Miracle Mom

An innovative surgical procedure literally disassembled cancer patient Janis Ollson – and gave her the chance to raise her kids.

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True Stories: Miracle Mom

Janis Ollson likes to keep busy. A mother of two, she lives in the tiny rural community of Balmoral, north of Winnipeg. She drives her children – Leiland, 4, and his sister Braxtyn, 7 – to and from activities, sometimes by van, sometimes by all-terrain vehicle, sometimes by snowmobile. She cooks, cleans and shops. By the standards of most Canadian moms and wives, it’s ordinary stuff.
But the fact that the 32-year-old can do any of these tasks is extraordinary. In 2007 Janis was seven months pregnant with Leiland and suffering from unbearable back pain. An MRI revealed the problem: a tumorous mass, the size of a Pizza Pop, on her lower spine. After further testing, Janis was diagnosed with a rare type of chondrosarcoma – cancer of the cartilage – that doesn’t respond to chemotherapy or radiation. And because her tumour was so difficult to get at, doctors at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, where she’d been referred, were unsure how to remove it and still give Janis the ability to care for her children. Worse, the cancer had spread to her pelvis and muscle tissue.

The diagnosis came as a shock. “I thought: I’m young, I’m a nonsmoker, I’m healthy, I’m not overweight,” says Janis. “Surely they’ve found it soon enough, so they’ll be able to do something. I’ll be fine.” Janis’s immediate concern was for her unborn child. She was vastly relieved to learn the baby could be delivered early by C-section and not be affected by the cancer – even as she absorbed the news that she might not be around for her kids or husband, Daryl.

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Janis’s doctors referred her case to Dr. Michael Yaszemski, an American orthopedic surgeon at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He provided a sliver of hope. Her only option for survival, according to Yaszemski, was to undergo a surgical procedure in which he and his team would essentially disassemble Janis’s lower body, remove her cancer and then put her back together again. Never before attempted on a live patient, the procedure was drastic and the outcome far from certain.

But Janis pulled through. As she scoots around her house today in a wheelchair – shooing the family’s energetic dog, a Weimaraner named Millennium, out of the way as she tidies up – it’s clear her fierce determination to be there for her kids made all the difference. “My whole focus in life has always been to be a mom,” she says. Death was never an option.

Yaszemski is a soft-spoken doctor who has done groundbreaking research into rebuilding and replacing bone, cartilage and nerve tissue. As a medical officer in the air force reserves, he treated hundreds of wounded soldiers in Iraq in 2006. He had also once treated a patient with a condition similar to Janis’s – but, without any viable reconstructive surgical methods available at that time, it had not turned out well. “He went from a guy who was alive and independent to a guy who was still alive, but no longer independent,” says Yaszemski of the patient. “He couldn’t get out of bed by himself.”

That experience inspired Yaszemski and his team to test new methods of surgical reconstruction on cadavers, so that “if we ever met someone like him again, we’d be prepared for it.”

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In early May 2007, Yaszemski telephoned Janis at her home with the first piece of good news she’d been given in a long time. His team had a plan – one that would involve more than 100 medical personnel in at least eight surgical specialties. Over the course of two lengthy operations, these doctors would completely remove Janis’s affected body parts: her left leg, left pelvis, lower backbone and part of her right pelvis. With nothing left for her right leg to be attached to, they would use part of the bone from the top of her amputated left leg to connect her right leg and pelvis to what remained of her lower spine. This would give her the use of one leg, which would be shifted closer to the centre of her body, and allow for a prosthetic left leg to be attached later.

Yaszemski stressed to Janis that this complex procedure posed a significant risk to her life. But Janis, who by this time had a healthy baby boy and was determined to see him and his sister grow up, trusted the doctor and did not hesitate. “I have kids. I need to be there for them.”

After speaking with Yaszemksi, the Ollsons obtained passports and arranged for Daryl to take time off from work. Daryl and Janis’s families, meanwhile, organized a fundraising social to raise money for extras not covered by Manitoba’s health-insurance plan (such as accommodation and travel for family members). Three weeks later, the Ollsons were in Rochester, where they stayed for almost two months.

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The initial operation to remove the cancerous tissue took place on May 23, 2007, and lasted 13 hours. News stories have referred to Janis as the “cut in half” woman. In fact, she was not technically cut in half, says Yaszemski. While the first operation disconnected her “skeletal continuity,” her right leg and remaining pelvis stayed attached to her body by skin, muscle, nerves and blood vessels. A week after that first operation, Janis underwent seven hours of reconstructive surgery.

The procedures were a success. Daryl and Janis were even able to observe their seventh wedding anniversary, which fell in between the two surgeries. For the occasion, the nurses reduced the sedative Janis was under so she would be conscious enough to communicate with Daryl.

After 52 days at the Mayo Clinic, Janis arrived home in a body cast. And while much of her recovery – which has involved about 15 return trips to the Mayo Clinic – has gone smoothly, it hasn’t been perfect.

Some time after the surgery, Janis showed up at the emergency room of Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre with severe abdominal pain. Because the procedure had so radically rearranged her insides, doctors there did not know what her anatomy was supposed to look like. It wasn’t until her husband provided them with postsurgical images taken at the Mayo Clinic that they figured out she had an intestinal blockage.

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Learning to walk again was a painstaking process, which has required “a lot of work, determination and patience,” Janis says. Not only has she lost about 80 percent of the feeling in her remaining leg but she also lacks working gluteal and calf muscle, and can’t move her foot. Around the house she usually uses her wheelchair. But when she needs to stand, she relies on a brace and crutches.

Last fall she became an overnight celebrity after the Winnipeg Free Press featured her story and international news agencies reprinted it widely. Since then, phone calls, letters and emails have poured in from around the world. Because she knows the importance of encouraging others who face similar difficulties, Janis has been willing to tell her story over and over again, regardless of whether she’s speaking to a small group of children at her daughter’s school or to millions via a big television network – as happened last fall, when the whole family was flown to New York City to appear on NBC’s Today.

Some people have been especially moved by Janis’s example. “I saw your story online and wish you the very best,” says one woman in a Facebook message. “My sister had the same thing, found in the same location. I wish the surgery they had done for you [had been] an option, because she might still be here today. My family will [pray] that you stay cancer-free.”

Since Janis’s groundbreaking surgery, Yaszemski has performed the same type of operation on three more patients. Two died. The third, a younger woman like Janis, took three years to recover, but has now regained enough function to return to college.

“This is not an easy thing for human beings to have done to them,” stresses Yaszemski, who admires the way the Ollsons have pulled together. “I have the greatest respect for that family. They have not let this serious illness affect their family life. And I’m very proud of them.”

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