After a devastating brain tumor took away Katrina Velasco’s ability to swallow, speak, and even hold her head up, the 22-year-old Virginia Beach college student has worked tirelessly every day to regain what cancer took away.

Beating Brain Cancer

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Virginia Beach College Student Fights Back after Devastating Brain Tumor

After a devastating brain tumor took away Katrina Velasco’s ability to swallow, speak, and even hold her head up, the 22-year-old Virginia Beach college student has worked tirelessly every day to regain what cancer took away.

Life-Changing Day

On August 10, 2015, Katrina, then 20 years-old, experienced a severe headache at a friend’s house. The medical team at Sentara Leigh Hospital determined she had bleeding in her brain and called on Nightingale Regional Air Ambulance to transport her to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. The family was told that Katrina would not survive.

During a five-hour surgery, Sentara neurosurgeon, Dr. Wylie H. Zhu (Chief, Sentara Neurosurgery Specialists), discovered a tumor had ruptured in her cerebellum. After surgery, Katrina remained in Neuro Intensive Care Unit at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital for an extended period of time due to the severity of her initial brain injury. She awoke from a coma, and eventually went to MCV/VCU brain injury unit for inpatient rehabilitation and then back to Sentara for outpatient rehab.

Dr. Zhu and the team of doctors from the Neuro-Oncology Center at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital diagnosed Katrina with Astrocytoma (WHO Grade I). The multidisciplinary care team reviewed Katrina’s case, and determined she did not need chemotherapy or radiation.  Frequent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans allow the team to monitor whether or not the tumor has returned.

Katrina and her mom, Carina, are very thankful for the care team of doctors, nurses, therapists and all providers in the Sentara Cancer Network, for their patience and diligence. 

“It’s a miracle because I thought my daughter was going to die,” Carina says. “I thank Dr. Zhu for his expertise and his miracle hand, eyes and intelligence in saving Katrina’s life.”

Long Road, Lots of Progress

The damage from the tumor wiped out Katrina’s ability to swallow, speak, hold her head up, write and walk, among other tasks. In essence, she was like a newborn. Katrina’s persistence and determination have paid off with her tremendous progress.

“She went from a wheelchair to a walker to using a walking stick,” says Carina, who took almost a year off work to take care of her only child. “Now, I hold her hand for balance. I’m very proud of her. She’s a very strong and brave young lady.”

As part of her weekly rehab, some days Katrina and her mom walk the aisles at the nearby grocery store where Katrina uses the grocery cart to help her balance. Some days they go to Dave & Buster’s where Katrina follows the dance moves to the Pump it Up arcade game. Other days, she goes to Mount Trashmore Park where she improves her core strength on a long board while her dad pulls her. She also plays sled hockey.

“I do plenty of exercises,” says Katrina. “I do it to increase my physical therapy and, at the same time, it kills two birds with one stone because I also get to practice my speech therapy by talking to others.”

Katrina has taken classes online at Tidewater Community College and now is able to take them in person with her mother’s assistance. She’s picking up where she left off before her brain tumor.

Even before her medical crisis, Katrina planned to study occupational therapy. Now, she’s experiencing it first-hand. In fact, Katrina considers her classes as another rehab opportunity – reading her textbook out loud to improve her speech, typing on her laptop to help with hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills and walking to class to exercise.

“My condition at the moment should not only apply to myself but to anyone who is facing any obstacles in their lives because if you keep a positive attitude, you can do anything,” Katrina says. “There’s a lot of negativity in life already, so why should we add more negativity to it?”

Her mother also has advice for families facing similar situations.

“Our sick loved ones get their strength from the people around them,” she says. “Don’t lose hope. Be brave and be there for the patient.”

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