Royal Oak — The life-threatening tumor pressing against his skull was massive.
So huge, surgeons in Chidi Tagbo’s home country of Nigeria refused to touch it.
Surgeons contacted in Germany, India, Dubai and Spain also declined. Too risky, too complicated, they said. But if not removed, the tumor could cause blindness, brain damage and, ultimately, death.
Tagbo was not deterred.
“The rejections just gave me courage to keep seeking help,” said Tagbo, 21. “I felt that one day I would get my answer.”
With his condition steadily deteriorating, plagued by difficulty breathing, fainting spells and constant headaches, Tagbo, of Enugu, Nigeria, finally emailed a Metro Detroit physician he discovered on Facebook.
“I thought that since he is a philanthropist and he accepts difficult situations, let me send him a message,” Tagbo said.
Dr. Kongkrit Chaiyasate, a 43-year-old surgeon at Beaumont’s Ian Jackson Craniofacial and Cleft Palate Clinic, agreed to accept Tagbo as a patient.
Tagbo, a soft-spoken, understated young man, expressed his gratitude in an email back to Chaiyasate.
He wrote: “Oh My God! So I will live again!! Sir, We do not have words to express our appreciation and thanks. We are overwhelmed with joy!!! My parents and I are so thankful to you!! God bless and be with you all. You are super kind and wonderful !!!!”
In that fateful email exchange between two strangers, across 5,500 miles, and a 21-hour flight to Michigan, Tagbo’s life was handed back to him. Today, the only evidence of his tumor is a zig-zag scar snaking along the right side of his head.
Tagbo’s mother, Beckie Tagbo had cautioned her son to be patient while emailing surgeons around the world for help.
“I told him if we hurry, we could go to someone who might damage his brain permanently, ” she said. “This is not some other part of the body where you can go anywhere for treatment. This is the brain!”
Mom and son sat in a room inside the Neuroscience Center this week with Chaiyasate to retrace Tagbo’s journey to successful surgery. Mom and son returned to Nigeria Thursday after being here since October. The surgery took place on Dec. 8 at Beaumont Royal Oak.
Chaiyasate said the rare diagnosis was craniofacial fibrous dysplasia. It is a bone disorder where scar tissue develops in place of normal bone tissue, resulting in weak skull and facial bones.
“I probably see five or 10 cases a year from all around the world,” Chaiyasate said. “But his case was severe and life-threatening. He was passing out because the tumor was pressing against the pituitary gland. The constant headaches were a result of pressure inside the skull. It had been growing for a long time and would continue to grow.”
The doctor said Tagbo’s tumor was not cancerous, but it crowded half of Tagbo’s skull and brain, causing the right side of his head and face to swell. Pressure caused his eye socket to be pushed downward and his right eye to bulge. If the tumor compressed the optic nerve, it could blind him. The headaches affected his ability to focus and concentrate on his studies, and the tumor also caused his airway to be partially blocked, making breathing difficult.
He said they were able to remove “most” of the tumor.
“About 15 percent of it remains,” he said. “It was so deep, it would be dangerous to pursue,” he said. “But it is very unlikely to continue to grow.”
The tumor resulted from a childhood accident when Tagbo was 9 and his brother, Chika, was 8.
“I was chasing my brother, and I didn't see a door hinge, so I hit my head on it, and my forehead opened and blood was all over my face,” he said. “That's when I knew something went terribly wrong. It felt cold, and I was so scared.”
Tagbo and his mom walked to a nearby clinic where he was stitched up and sent back home.
But it took months before the real swelling began.
“When I was first diagnosed in 2009, the doctor in Nigeria said nothing could be done at that moment because my bones had not yet ossified,” said Tagbo in an email describing why doctors in his country refused to treat him. “He recommended that I should seek help abroad when I am at least 18 years old and if the problems intensify.”
He said he underwent several CT and MRI scans in Nigeria, consulted several doctors including orthopedic and neurosurgeons as well as an ophthalmologist.
He said doctors there could not treat it because of lack of proper equipment and expertise for rare cases like his.
At Beaumont, the surgery was a team effort between three specialists: Dr. Jeffrey Jacob, a neurosurgeon; Dr. Adam Folbe, an otolaryngologist; and Chaiyasate, a craniofacial/plastic surgeon.
Pointing to an image of the skull on his laptop, Chaiyasate explained the tumor was removed, a mesh skull implant was put in place and tissue was transferred to cover the right side of the head and face. He said the surgery took about 10 hours with his portion taking six hours.
Asked how much a surgery like that would cost, Chaiyasate responded: “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Chaiyasate, Jacob and Folbe took no pay for their services.
Tagbo recently was admitted to study medicine at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
“By God’s grace, I plan to help others, to give back by helping people who will not be able to afford to seek medical attention,” Tagbo said. “It is a blessing to me.”
Beckie Tagbo said she was shocked to her bones when she found out the surgeons operated on her son without pay.
“We were overwhelmed by the gesture because it was unheard of,” she said.
Chaiyasate said he hopes to keep in touch with Tagbo and mentor him.
“I hope he will come back and visit us,” he said.
Chidi Tagbo, who has repeatedly thanked the surgeons and nurses in person and by email, said he is feeling “great.”
“Far better than before,” he said. “I now read without having to deal with pains or poor communication, and I breathe better.”