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Westchester Surgeon From Netflix Show Rids Grandmother Of Massive Tumor

Doctors at Lenox Hill Hospital featured on a Netflix series released last April removed a football-sized tumor from 89-year-old Lorenza De La Villa's head. Photo Credit: Northwell Health
A scan of De La Villa's tumor Photo Credit: Northwell Health
De La Villa's tumor had grown to nearly the size of a football by August, and was ripping at her skin. Photo Credit: Northwell Health
Boockvar with De La Villa Aug. 18, on the surgical table. Photo Credit: Northwell Health
Boockvar and De La Villa, post surgery. Photo Credit: Northwell Health
Lenox Hill physicians (from left) Dr. Rafael Ortiz, Dr. David Langer and Dr. John Boockvar with De La Villa. Photo Credit: Northwell Health
De La Villa's quality of life has improved greatly, thanks to the neurosurgeons at Lenox Hill Hospital. Photo Credit: Northwell Health
De La Villa surrounded by some of her 22 grandchildren including Michelle Tavares, bottom left. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Tavares
De La Villa and her daughters in a photo taken approximately 10 years ago. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Tavares
De La Villa worked as a seamstress in Brooklyn before moving to New Jersey -- first Cedar Grove and later Teaneck. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Tavares

A Westchester County neurosurgeon from popular Netflix docu-series "Lenox Hill," has saved yet another life.

This one, an 89-year-old grandmother from Northern New Jersey, turned away by countless doctors refusing to operate on a football-sized tumor that took over her skull -- and her life.

For 25 years, Lorenza De La Villa of Teaneck, in Bergen County, barely noticed the small tumor in the back of her head. She found it in 1995, when she was 64 years old. 

It was benign. It didn't hurt. It never grew.

"She did what doctors told her to do," said one of De La Villa's 22 grandchildren, Michelle Tavares. "She went for MRIs every year and saw a neurologist every six months.

"Since it wasn't growing, causing pain or neurological impairment, doctors didn't have her do anything about it."

For 25 years, that's the way things were. De La Villa's "little egg" rarely crossed her mind.

But in March, just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, something changed: The tumor was starting to grow.

By April, it had more than doubled in size. By May, it had nearly doubled again.

By August, De La Villa's "little egg" was almost the size of a football, and the once-lively and vivacious grandmother was no longer herself.

"She was bedridden," Tavares said of her grandmother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia in 1978. "Her speech was off, her vision was off and she couldn't walk."

De La Villa's daughter -- one of her 10 children, who chose to remain anonymous -- became her primary care taker.

Desperate for help, De La Villa's daughter scheduled Telehealth examinations with some of the area's top doctors, too nervous to go in person due to the virus. Each call ended the same way, with doctors refusing to operate.

In July, De La Villa went for an in-person visit with a neurologist.

"He said there was nothing we could do at that point,'" Tavares said. "He wasn’t very nice about it."

Never ones to give up hope, De La Villa and her family remained determined to find a someone who would take action.

As fate would have it, De La Villa's daughter met someone who changed things for them: A Craigslist seller she was buying a fan from, who happened to have watched "Lenox Hill" on Netflix.

The docu-series released last April follows physicians from Lenox Hill Hospital's Brain Surgery Center in New York City. They treated patients who came to them from around the world and, much like De La Villa, had been turned away from countless physicians.

Naturally, De La Villa's daughter told the seller her mother's dilemma. He suggested reaching out to the doctors from the show.

Within days of contacting them, Lenox Hill had all of De La Villa's scans -- and the doctors had decided to take her on as a patient.

"She could barely hold her head up when she first came in," said Dr. John Boockvar, Vice Chair of Neurosurgery and the Director of the Brain Tumor Center at Lenox Hill Hospital.

"It was wrapped in a diaper and leaning against the side of her wheelchair. She was as sick as a person could be without actually being in the hospital."

Aside from the rapidly-growing tumor, though, De La Villa was in good health.

"She was one of these vibrant, matriarchs of the family," said Boockvar, of Scarsdale. "She’s used to just doing."

A 25 percent chance of death, the possibility of a stroke, blindness, a feeding tube and pneumonia were only some of the risks of surgery. The doctors weighed the alternatives, benefits and dangers of every procedure for every patient, Boockvar said.

In De La Villa's case, all of the risks were ones worth taking, he said.

"As surgeons, no one wants to have their finger on the trigger of someone dying," he said. "But looking at her, I knew she was going to die if we didn’t do anything."

And so, Boockvar and three other Lenox Hills physicians came up with a comprehensive plan for De La Villa's Aug. 18 procedure to remove her not-so-little egg.

Dr. Rafael Ortiz -- the chief of Neuro-Endovascular Surgery and Interventional Neuro-Radiology at Lenox Hill Hospital -- would shut the blood supply to De La Villa's brain using an endovascular technique the night of Aug. 17. Then, Boockvar would remove the tumor, assisted by Dr. David Langer, chair of Lenox Hill's neurosurgery department.

Finally, the site would be closed by Dr. Peter Costantino, a preeminent head and neck surgeon.

The morning of Aug. 18, De La Villa blessed her doctors and they got to work on the tumor -- a third of which was invading their patient's brain.

"The biggest decision we make as surgeons is knowing when to stop," Boockvar said.

"For example, the next piece you pull off could unroof a blood vessel and unleash a geyser of blood."

But it didn't. Everything that happened during the six-hour procedure went according to plan -- if not better, Boockvar said.

"Using complex navigation tools, I knew exactly where we were by pointing an instrument in her head, and where we should stop," the surgeon said. "And that was a good decision.

"Because of where we stopped, we were able to get to a point where we could close the skin with good healing, and reconstructed her skull with a piece of titanium mesh."

De La Villa was holding her head up the night of the surgery. She had energy. She was already feeling more like herself.

Two days later, she returned home. No blood clots. No fever. No stroke.

"She's doing terrific," Boockvar said. "I saw her [last] Monday -- dressed to the nines, as she is normally, apparently.

"She's healed beautifully."

Turning De La Villa away just because of her age wasn't an option for Boockvar, who knows a thing or two about treating the elderly.

"My grandfather died at 98, but at 92, he developed an ulcer in his foot and discovered he had poor blood circulation in his legs," Boockvar said.

"It was stopping a very active man from walking. My dad took him to the doctors, who said he was too old for bypass surgery."

Not operating, however, would run the risk of infections and possibly amputations, Boockvar said.

"My dad found a surgeon who was willing to operate, and because of that my grandfather walked in the last six or seven years of his life, with high quality," said Boockvar.

Much like his grandfather, Boockvar said, De La Villa has a good quality of life ahead of her.

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