Head and neck cancer survivor and Mass. Eye and Ear patient Trudy Baldwin exudes positivity amid life-threatening illness. In honor of Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week, we share her story of light in the darkness — and hope.
In 2006, Trudy Baldwin visited her local ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor for minor surgery. She had no idea that what should have been a simple procedure to correct a persistent sinus infection would turn the next decade of her life upside down.
During the surgery, Trudy’s doctor discovered she had a rare type of cancer called esthesioneuroblastoma, which originates in the nasal cavity and can spread to the sinuses, eyes and brain. Recognizing that she would need specialty care, he referred her to Dr. Derrick Lin, Chief of Head and Neck Oncology at Mass. Eye and Ear.
“Fighting for my life”
Dr. Lin successfully removed the tumor from Trudy’s nasal cavity. The years since her surgery, however, have not been without their challenges.
After surgery, Trudy underwent 35 days of radiation therapy to ensure that all of the cancer was gone. Unfortunately, Trudy’s body reacted poorly to the radiation, and she developed necrosis, or rotting of the skin above her nose near her left eye. She spent several days in Mass. Eye and Ear’s Norman Knight Hyperbaric Medicine Center, receiving oxygen therapy to stop the necrosis, but to no avail.
Trudy was left with three open holes in her face, exposing her to serious infection, not to mention a severely diminished quality of life. After a failed attempt to cover the openings with a skin flap, she became infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a dangerous bacterium that is resistant to many commonly used antibiotics. Trudy was fighting for her life.
She underwent aggressive treatment at Mass. Eye and Ear, and after two uncertain months, the MRSA infection had cleared. In a second attempt to repair the missing skin on her face, Dr. Matthew Jackson, a community-based oral and maxillofacial surgeon at Mass. Eye and Ear, designed a facial prosthetic to cover the open areas. Fortunately, the prosthetic took, and for the first time since her cancer diagnosis more than two years prior, Trudy was out of the woods.
A long road
Over the next several years, Trudy remained a patient of Mass. Eye and Ear. She received regular follow-up care from Dr. Lin and his team to ensure the cancer did not return and that she remained infection-free. When she developed double vision, Dr. Lin referred her to Dr. Dean Cestari, a neuro-ophthalmology specialist at Mass. Eye and Ear, who prescribed eye glasses with special prisms to help her see. When she had fluid in her ear, she was sent down the hall to Dr. Daniel Lee, a specialist in otology and neurotology, who cleared it right up.
In 2014, she developed a frightening brain abscess. The radiation she received as part of her cancer treatment had compromised her immune system, leaving her highly susceptible to infection. She again had surgery with Dr. Lin, spending several weeks in the hospital followed by two months of rehabilitative care.
Saving quality of life
When Trudy reflects on her experience as a patient at Mass. Eye and Ear, she is sure to point out that not only did her doctors save her life—twice—but they also saved her quality of life.
“The problems I had, and there were many, were resolved quickly,” said Trudy. “Dr. Lin and the other specialists worked so well together and they treated me like a person, not just a patient. Because of that, I had no fear or anxiety about the care I was receiving.”
This kind of expert, attentive care can drastically affect a person’s quality of life, especially when treatment extends over more than a decade. “If I had to wait months for an appointment for a prosthetic with three holes in my face, I wouldn’t have left my house the entire time,” said Trudy. As it was, she was fitted for the prosthetic within days, giving her the confidence and ability to continue living her life.
Trudy was also plagued by constant headaches that caused her a great deal of pain and discomfort. Her care team was determined to find the source and provide her some relief. In 2016, Trudy was referred to Dr. Stacy Gray, Director of the Sinus Center, who performed an operation to relieve the pressure from her sinuses and help her nose drain. Afterwards, her headaches were gone and she felt like a new person.
“My friends asked me how I could be so positive all the time,” said Trudy. “My answer was simple—how could I not?”
Her turn to make a difference
Trudy was always keenly aware of the phenomenal care she received at Mass. Eye and Ear. She also knew that every other patient who walked through the door was given the same outstanding level of care. Even on her worst days, she was exceedingly grateful and determined to find a way to give back.
Trudy started out by making small charitable donations to the hospital. Then she thought, if she committed to sending in a check every month, she could give more. Over time, she gradually increased the amount of her monthly gifts and has become one of Mass. Eye and Ear’s most loyal and devoted donors. She sees it as her small way of giving back to the hospital and the people who saved her life and helping to ensure they can continue to save the lives of others.
“As a retired middle school librarian, I don’t have millions to give,” said Trudy. “But I feel my giving makes a difference. And it shows the wonderful people at Mass. Eye and Ear that I care.”
“Every day is sacred”
Recently, Trudy celebrated her ten-year anniversary of being cancer-free. On that day, she wrote a letter to Dr. Lin. She thanked him, of course, for keeping her alive all these years and told him what that meant to her. During that time, she welcomed two more grandchildren into the world, taught 1,000 students, and spent countless treasured moments with family and friends. She also enjoyed the pleasure of working in her garden, baked lots of goodies and played some really bad rounds of golf. Trudy acknowledges that to most people, this sort of life would seem mundane. To her, it’s a wonderful blessing because it is just that—a life.
“When you’ve almost died once or twice, the mundane becomes a blessing,” said Trudy. “Every day is sacred.”
To help Mass. Eye and Ear’s specialists provide the very best care to patients like Trudy, please consider making a gift today.