The diagnosis was devastating.
A tumor the size of an orange was growing inside Shameana Singh’s skull, pressing hard against her brain and eventually paralyzing her entire left side.
The meningioma rising from the layers of membrane covering her brain had upended the Chesapeake Beach resident’s daily routine of brushing her teeth, braiding her hair, getting her four children ready for school, going to her job as a medical assistant and taking college classes.
To complicate matters further, Singh was six months pregnant with her fifth child.
In the months before she learned a tumor was crowding her brain, Singh, 39, and her husband, Mohan Singh Jr., 42, were like any other couple: They went to work, paid bills, served in their church and stayed busy with their three daughters, Shamoni, 16, Mariah, 14, Amia, 11, and son Mohan III, 7.
“I wasn’t planning on having a fifth child. I was good,” Shameana Singh said recently. “But [Mohan III] kept telling all of his friends that I was pregnant. My husband and I had to sit him down and tell him we were not having a baby. We told him: ‘You’re the baby.’”
But little Mohan had other ideas. “He looked us in the face and said, ‘Well, Mommy, God told me that you are going to have a boy, and he is going to be named Daniel.’ And he walked out of the room.”
A few weeks later, an ultrasound confirmed that Singh was 14 weeks pregnant.
Yet the joy of welcoming a new baby was dampened by the slow-growing tumor that triggered symptoms that were barely noticeable at first. Singh kept going to her job at Kaiser Permanente in Annapolis and taking classes toward her bachelor’s in communications, all while raising four young children.
“I had numbness in my left wrist. I thought I had carpal tunnel. I just brushed it off,” Singh said. “I didn’t really notice, until my left leg wasn’t moving as fast as my right leg.”
As the tumor continued to gain more ground in her skull, Singh began to experience greater numbness along her left side — something she had never experienced during her previous pregnancies. That’s when she decided to get an MRI at Kaiser’s South Baltimore County Medical Center.
“The night I went in for the MRI, the technician and I were laughing and joking,” Singh said. But what was supposed to be a 20-minute procedure took twice as long.
“I saw the look on his face. I know that look,” she said. “I said, ‘You saw something.’ He said, ‘If the doctor doesn’t call you tomorrow, you call him.’”
The next day, a team of physicians confirmed a meningioma. “They said they thought the tumor was not cancerous, but they couldn’t tell me anything definite until I went in for surgery,” she said. “They didn’t know whether the tumor was attached to my brain.”
Although meningiomas are considered a brain tumor, they do not grow from the brain itself, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. Instead, they arise from the meninges, three thin layers of tissue covering the brain and spinal cord. These tumors most commonly grow inward causing pressure on the brain or spinal cord, but they may also grow outward toward the skull.
While the exact cause of meningioma is not known, ABTA researchers have found the tumor has been associated with exposure to radiation, obesity and interaction with sex hormones such as progesterone, androgen and, less commonly, estrogen. Researchers have observed that occasionally meningiomas may grow faster during pregnancy.
The neurosurgeon wanted to wait until Singh was 39 weeks pregnant before operating. But at 24 weeks along, Singh knew she couldn’t hold on much longer.
“I had no control over my left side. I couldn’t stand up,” she said. “I could feel my body shutting down.”
Early on the morning of April 13, 2016, Singh was rolled into a surgical suite at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. “I was terrified when I got in there. It was like ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ Every X-ray in the room was of my brain. I could see the instruments that are used to open your skull. It really hit me: ‘I’m about to have brain surgery.’”
Singh said her Christian faith comforted her as she lay on the operating table. “The anesthesiologist thought that I had a piece of tissue in my hand because I was crying, and he was about to throw it away,” she said. “When he looked at what I had in my hand, he said, ‘Is that scripture?’ I had on the oxygen mask and said, ‘Yes.’” He folded the tissue-thin paper with Psalm 23 printed on it and tucked it under a corner of Singh’s surgical cap.
As she underwent surgery, Mohan Singh, the Rev. Glenn Swanson, the couple’s pastor, and members of Bayside Baptist Church in Chesapeake Beach maintained a prayer vigil in the waiting room, knowing that life and death were in the balance.
“The most difficult thing out of the entire situation … was the night when we sat down and had to have the discussion on what to do if the brain surgery went bad and I had to make a decision on who to save: my wife or my unborn child,” Mohan Singh said.
“I know most doctors and people in general would say that it makes more sense to use resources to save a grown woman than a 22- to 23-week old baby,” he said. “However, I knew if I had to make that decision, and I chose my wife over the child she would not have forgiven me. So, I was prepared to make the decision to save the baby and live my life alone with five kids. Not because I wanted to, but because that’s what my wife would have wanted.”
Shameana Singh drifted in and out of consciousness the day after surgery. But as she became fully awake, she realized that she could move her arms and legs. And, perhaps greater still, she was told her unborn baby was doing fine.
While the benign tumor had been removed successfully, its effects still lingered for four months after surgery. Singh’s vision changed. She suffered numerous seizures and anxiety attacks. She underwent physical, occupational, speech and memory therapy.
The Singhs’ bills started to pile up after Mohan Singh lost his job for taking off too many days to care for his wife. Although Shameana Singh’s health insurance and short-term disability insurance covered most of their expenses, they struggled to pay the mortgage and buy groceries. “There were months when we had to go without paying the mortgage because we had to use the money for food and utilities,” she said, adding that family and friends pitched in whenever they could.
“I wasn’t myself mentally. But I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t go into ‘woe is me,’” she said. “I had to think about the baby. I didn’t have time to process anything. I’m in therapy trying to fight for my life; to get everything back. Everything was happening at the same time.”
When it came time for the baby to be born, Singh said her husband wanted the newborn to be delivered by Cesarean section because it would be a controlled situation. “If something went wrong during a vaginal delivery, he didn’t want to have to make a decision between me and the baby.”
At midnight on July 29, 2016, Daniel Malachi Singh came into the world at 6 pounds, 12 ounces, and 19½ inches long. Today, he is a healthy toddler trying to keep up with his older siblings, Singh said.
“Her journey through the brain tumor and having her son Daniel has been an inspiration,” said Swanson, her pastor. “The doctor said that she may not see her son or that there could be complications. But as she shares her testimony with the church family, folks can see that God has a greater plan.”
Singh marked the second anniversary of her brain surgery in a video she posted on Facebook on April 13: “The Lord saw fit that I would make it through brain surgery, and my son in my belly would live,” she said. “I have some boundaries and things that I am still working through health-wise, physically and emotionally-wise, but I’m here.”
In the past two years, the Singhs have begun to put the pieces of her life back together: Mohan Singh landed a new job in the IT department at Anne Arundel Medical Center. Shameana Singh is still a medical assistant, only now working at Kaiser Permanente in Chesapeake Beach. And this past spring she completed her 13-year journey to earn her college degree.
As she crossed the stage May 22 during Bowie State University’s commencement exercises at Xfinity Center in College Park, Singh raised her hands and bowed her head in silent thanksgiving. “I was thinking of how I couldn’t walk and how I didn’t know if I would walk or live,” she said, reflecting on her illness and recovery.
Singh is like many of my former Bowie State students whom I follow on social media to share in their celebrations of milestone moments.
And while many undergraduates walk a winding path toward their college degrees, perhaps Singh has cleared more hurdles than most.
Singh’s odyssey to overcome medical, financial and academic obstacles is not only a personal victory, she said, but a real-life lesson in perseverance for her children.
“I am able to tell my children that no matter what you are going through there is no excuse,” Singh said. “I am not just telling them to do something; they can see me doing it.”