Tracey Mallett suffered from headaches, and she was worried.
Over the course of four years, the Los Angeles-based celebrity fitness instructor battled headaches that had become increasingly more intense and frightening. Irregular at first, they often came on suddenly and would last for several days. She discussed the headaches with her physicians, but they assured her that she was suffering from migraines, just as her mother, grandmother and aunt had.
By 2013, however, the headaches had become a twice-a-month occurrence, and at times were accompanied by severe vomiting. Mallett also noticed her left eye seemed unusually dilated.
At the time, Mallett, a mother of two, was busy traveling the world to teach Pilates and running her successful international fitness company. “I learned to work through the pain, but it was getting unmanageable,” she recalled. “I would have a lot pain in my neck, and the headaches were becoming really, really intense.”
But she wasn’t prepared for what came next. In November 2013, Mallett was scheduled to teach a class at a fitness conference in England. “I woke up feeling sick, but I went to teach the class anyway,” she said. Suddenly, in front of 100 fitness enthusiasts, the unthinkable happened: “I felt dizzy and started vomiting — and then I just collapsed.”
A Shocking Diagnosis
Mallett was taken to a local hospital emergency room, where a CT scan revealed a large mass on the left side of her brain.
Having lived a healthy and active lifestyle, Mallett was in shock. “I was scared. I couldn’t believe it was happening,” she said. She immediately flew back home, where a close friend and physician recommended she see Gabriel Zada, MD, assistant professor of neurological surgery at Keck Medicine of USC.
Keck Medicine’s Department of Neurological Surgery is world-renowned for its clinical expertise and scientific research with diverse subspecialization in cerebrovascular, neuro-oncology, spine, endovascular, functional, pediatric, radiosurgery and trauma neurosurgery. Zada is an expert in minimally-invasive brain tumor surgery, as well as endoscopic skull base and pituitary surgery.
An MRI confirmed that Mallett had a meningioma, a tumor that arises from the meninges, the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Thankfully, Mallett’s tumor was noncancerous. However, the swelling was causing a lot of pressure in the region of her brain that controls speech and language, vision and the function of her right hand.
Zada was able to successfully remove the tumor through a small incision near Mallett’s left ear. The minimally invasive surgery was performed using an computer- and image-guidance and specialized instruments that helped Zada reach the precise location of the tumor and carefully remove it from critical brain structures surrounding the tumor.
“The benefits of using minimally invasive techniques are many,” Zada explained. “There is much less pain post-surgery, a faster recovery time, minimal scarring, and we didn’t need to shave Tracey’s hair. She was able to do a photo shoot for her fitness business just a couple of weeks after the surgery.”
In fact, in just 24 hours following her six-hour surgery, Mallett was performing some light exercise moves in her room. She was back to her daily running routine after three weeks.
“Tracey is incredibly inspiring,” said Zada. “Our goal as surgeons is to develop new techniques that are safer for patients and allow them to get back to life with no lingering complications. Seeing Tracey now is very rewarding.”
Mallett, who is now completely pain-free, said she feels grateful to have been given a second chance. “A gift has been given to me,” she said. “I appreciate life and my family so much more.”
–By Elena F. Epstein