'Monster' tumor left holes in Mattoon woman's memory

'Monster' tumor left holes in Mattoon woman's memory

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MATTOON — Weeks after her bizarre medical condition was featured on a cable TV program about "monsters" inside the body, Kira Hartley of Mattoon still has some blank spots in her memory about what happened to her last year.

The program, Animal Planet's "Monsters Inside Me," featured 27-year-old Hartley and the Carle doctor who diagnosed and treated her both before and after she underwent surgery for the removal of a football-size tumor from her ovaries with hair and body components — including cartilage and esophageal, lung and nervous-system tissue.

The tumor was identified as a teratoma, a type of germ-cell tumor that often contains several types of body tissue such as hair, teeth, muscle and bone.

In Hartley, the teratoma sparked an autoimmune condition that causes an inflammation of the brain, according to Carle neurologist Dr. Graham Huesmann.

While she can't remember everything about her condition and treatment, Hartley recalled suffering from hallucinations of demons, her food tasting strange and sleeplessness last year before she went to Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center for help. The last thing she remembers before calling 911 was thinking she heard her phone ringing when it wasn't, she said.

Huesmann said he first saw Hartley at Carle Foundation Hospital, where she was transferred with uncontrolled seizures. Her family said Hartley had been having episodes of psychotic behavior and strange mood swings when she had no history of that kind of behavior, he said.

"All of a sudden, she was very different. The family was very concerned," Huesmann said.

Huesmann said Hartley's teratoma was found in a scan, while her behavior combined with the seizures aroused his suspicion that the tumor had also led to the brain-inflammation condition called limbic encephalitis.

Limbic encephalitis is characterized by severe short-term memory impairment and sometimes seizures and psychotic behavior.

In Harley's case, Huesmann said, "the teratoma begins to produce nervous tissue. This is new to the immune system, and the immune system makes antibodies against this. These antibodies cross-react with the patient's own brain tissue."

Hartley's limbic encephalitis was spurred by what Huesmann identified as an anti-NMDA antibody. Her teratoma was large but benign, Huesmann said.

"Usually, these are 1-2 centimeters, and hers was 4 pounds," he said.

Hartley was placed in a medically induced coma to help stop the seizures and given drugs to suppress her immune system before undergoing surgery for the removal of the tumor, Huesmann said.

"These patients don't get better if you don't take out the teratoma," he said.

Limbic encephalitis, which can be caused by other factors than a tumor, is considered a rare disease. Huesmann diagnosed another local case of it in 2015 in a former Parkland College baseball coach who was suffering from a mysterious amnesia.

Huesmann said he initially resisted participating in the Animal Planet program, but agreed because Hartley asked him to do it.

Hartley, who formerly worked at Walmart, said she hasn't gone back to work and will need to continue annual monitoring with Huesmann, but otherwise, "I feel wonderful."

She remembered her reaction when she woke up from her surgery.

"Hey, I had something life-threatening in me, and I'm glad they got it out," she said.

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