Brain Injury Awareness Month: Frontenac man makes progress in brain tumor recovery battle

Jonathan Riley
Morning Sun

PITTSBURG, Kan. — When Steven Harris went to the doctor in August of 2015 for mild headaches he was experiencing, he thought they were a symptom of a cold he’d caught from his daughter. 

After noticing Harris was also having hand tremors, however, the doctor decided he should get a CAT scan in case the problem was neurological. It turned out Harris had the largest brain tumor the doctor had ever seen. 

“It was the size of a softball,” says Harris, “and it was wrapped around the main blood vessel in my brain.” 

Harris was moved from Joplin, where he was then living, to Columbia, Missouri. Because of a state legal requirement, doctors had to attempt surgery to save Harris’s life, but they told his family to say their goodbyes because he probably wasn’t going to make it. 

“I mean, the three hospitals they called, they all said no,” Harris says. “My insurance company denied it because I had a 4.8 percent chance to survive the surgery.” 

Miraculously, Harris did survive, and for close to three years now he has been living in Frontenac, Kansas. For about a year and a half after his surgery, though, his memory was only lasting five to ten minutes or less at a time. And prior to last year, attempts at speech-language pathology and cognitive rehabilitation therapy to help resolve the problem hadn’t been effective. 

“I guess it was in a group setting and it didn’t really stick,” Harris says. “It made me digress.” 

Five years after his surgery, when Harris began a new telehealth therapy program in October 2020 with speech-language pathologist Abby Browning, his condition had not improved much. 

“I was lucky if I could remember things after about 10 minutes, maybe 15,” Harris says. “I was really reliant on help from my mother with my medication, my food, and paying my bills.” 

Just a few months later, Harris is showing considerable improvement, says Browning, who works for the company NeuroRestorative, a provider of rehabilitation services to people with brain and spinal cord injuries or similar conditions. 

“Steven is now doing all of those things independently,” she says. “He has begun cooking on his own pretty consistently, he manages his own medication, he’s doing well managing his finances and is really on a pathway just to be an independent-living person and not needing the support of those around him.” 

NeuroRestorative has a presence in 26 states, which already included Kansas prior to COVID-19. The company has its main Kansas office in Lawrence and was providing services to patients in several counties in the state before the pandemic. The expansion of teletherapy over the past year, though, in NeuroRestorative’s case through the GoToMeeting platform, has meant a significant increase in treatment options for patients like Steven. 

“For those such as Steven living in more of a rural area where some of the services may not be accessible, this has been a great option to really reach all areas of Kansas that have not had service provisions, and then also just for those that aren’t able to travel to receive the services as well,” said Julie VanFoeken, program director for NeuroRestorative Kansas. 

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. While Harris’s main challenge since his surgery has been with his memory, Browning says he has also had other hurdles to overcome in his recovery, which are fairly common for people who experience a brain injury. 

“We’ve worked on thought organization, so the ability to effectively communicate a message in a sequential order. Sometimes after a brain injury, we find that thoughts can be kind of chaotic and disorganized and they’re not put in a sequential order, so the listener may have trouble understanding the message, which is something Steven and his family had expressed, that sometimes it was hard for him to communicate messages,” Browning says.  

“So Steven and I have worked on thought organization, we’ve worked on memory together, and Steven has put in a lot of hard work in just implementing strategies to overcome some of the struggles that he has.” 

Before doctors found his tumor, Harris had worked for nearly two decades as a certified nursing assistant and teaching related subject matter. Following his brain surgery, Harris thought he would never work again. After his therapy with NeuroRestorative, though, he now aspires to eventually pick up his old livelihood somewhere near where he left off. 

“When I do feel comfortable going back to work, I’m going to try to get back into medical,” Harris says. “That’s what my job skill is, it’s what I’ve always done, and when I can get to the point where I feel comfortable that the information that I’m trying to relay is correct, and not my brain trying to spit out the wrong information, then I’ll get back into medical work.” 

Still, Harris understands that surviving his brain surgery, let alone recovering as well as he has in such a short period of time in recent months, is an extraordinary achievement on its own. While he’s thankful to NeuroRestorative for making it possible to see a light at the end of the tunnel on his journey to recovery, he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. 

“If I had to, let’s say six months from now, I could probably get my own apartment and be perfectly fine,” Harris says, “but, I mean, without the help they’ve provided, that would not have been an option.”