WEST FARGO — For nearly a year, Avery Moxness experienced debilitating headaches, strange neck and shoulder pain, dizziness, ear pain and even occasional blackout vision.
Yet she found no relief.
In September, she and her mother, Erin, visited McCulley Optix Gallery for routine eye exams, and what the optometrist saw was so concerning, she recommended Avery go straight to the emergency room.
During the in-take process, both Avery and Erin had had images taken with the practice's fairly new instrument that takes high-definition photos of the retina, and before meeting with her new patients, Dr. Melissa McCulley reviewed the images in her office.
"I instantly looked and thought it didn't look like a good optic nerve," she said. "I explained to both Erin and Avery that this is very worrisome to me, and I recommend that you leave and go straight to the ER."
Tears were shed, then Erin and Avery headed to the ER, feeling some fear but also possible relief that Avery might finally receive a diagnosis — and eventual treatment and relief — for an issue that had been plaguing her off and on since she was five years old.
Armed with an image of her optic nerve and the name of a neuro ophthalmologist at Sanford Health, Avery underwent several tests before the doctor returned to say they should review the results in his office to deliver the news.
"He said, 'We found a mass,'" Erin remembered. "I didn't think I was hearing correctly. He said it was a tumor with a large cyst on it, and it was about the size of a baseball on the right side of her head . . . it was pushing her brain through to the other hemisphere, pushing on her spine causing the back and neck pain, and fluid on the brain was causing the dizziness and the pressure on the optic nerve was causing the headaches."
That was the evening of Sept. 16, and Avery was admitted to the pediatric ICU immediately with plans for doctors to assemble the next morning to determine a plan and course of treatment, and by Sept. 18 Avery had surgery to remove the tumor.
For Erin, the waiting was the worst part.
"It was almost like the seven stages of grief," she said. "First I felt shock, then when we were told it was a mass I cried, then I was just stoic the whole time in front of Avery."
Looking over at her daughter during the interview, she said, "I don't think Avery knows this, but I slept in the hospital room and at night, I would cry silently in the corner and pray, and then I'd wake up in the morning and be brave for Avery."
Before surgery, doctors prepared the Moxness family that removing the tumor might result in Avery having to learn how to walk and talk and process information again; after the surgery, doctors asked her to say her name, wiggle her toes, tell a story about something that had happened.
She passed those tests with flying colors.
"All of our prayers were answered," Erin said.
Avery's recovery process required no screens — cell phones, computers or tablets could trigger her healing brain — so she kept her mind active with word puzzles and trying new games. She had stitches removed Sept. 30 and embarked fully on her road to recovery.
Months later, Avery and her mother still can't believe the whirlwind that led to her diagnosis of a malignant by location tumor called pilocytic astrocytoma, which did have some cancer cells but was a grade 1, slow-growing tumor. Because of that, Avery needs to have an MRI every three months to make sure cancer cells do not grow back.
For the busy senior at Sheyenne High School, life has mostly returned to normal (or as normal as things can be during a pandemic). Avery celebrated her golden birthday on Dec. 18, and Landon's Light Foundation surprised her with items and gift cards to help get her set up at college next year. She hasn't decided where she'll go, but she knows she wants to major in musical theater.
For now, she's focusing on her college applications and getting ready for her school's next production.
"I've had a really good support system, and that's so important," she said.
That system includes neighbors who set up a Lend A Hand Up fundraiser to help with medical bills and a Meal Train to provide food. Bible study groups and prayer chains provided much needed encouragement and spiritual love for the family.
"We are so thankful for family and friends and the community support," Erin said. "We are so blessed."
And the Moxness family has made sure to keep McCulley informed of Avery's diagnosis and recovery since meeting her for the first time in the exam room back in September. The relationship between doctor and patient (and patient's mom) has blossomed into a lovely friendship all three cherish.
"I think this entire story is a true miracle," McCulley said. "I will never forget her and how well everything has turned out for the rest of my life. It's such a gift that I was in the right place at the right time with the right tools to help deal with this issue she'd been dealing with for years."
Both Erin and McCulley stressed the importance of keeping up with routine care, even during a pandemic, because it can mean a life-saving or life-changing diagnosis. In Avery's case, a simple eye exam opened the door to providing her with a diagnosis that certainly changed her life, but also gave her a reason to be even more grateful this holiday season.