Amazing! Follow an Oklahoman through wide-awake brain surgery and why his mandolin was important

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- When you are told you have a brain tumor, the diagnosis is shocking 100-percent of the time.

After the diagnosis, doctors explain the tumor is made up of brain cells and removing it will mean removing a portion of your brain.

Jim Milot is a carpenter by trade, with a knack for plucking out a tune on the mandolin.

Six weeks ago, Milot and his wife, Kathy, happened on a baseball-size tumor in Jim's head.

It was a surprise discovery while they were visiting a baby grandchild in the hospital at OU Medical Center.

The Milot's ran into a friend in the hospital cafeteria, who is also a doctor at OU Medical.

Kathy Milot mentioned their concerns about Jim's headaches, and they discovered the tumor that same day.

"It was very terrifying, but we knew God was with us in all of this," said Kathy. "He led us all the way."

Jim was diagnosed with Stage 4 Glioblastoma.

The malignant brain tumor was composed of his own brain cells and located in an area of the brain many consider untouchable.

Most surgeons would refuse to operate on a tumor like this, so close to so many eloquent areas of the brain.

"Life is about more than can you wiggle your fingers a little bit. You want to be able to be as functional as possible. But we can't back off the cancer. Cancer is cancer for a reason," said Stephenson Cancer Center Neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Sughrue. "It's really an aggressive cancer. So we want to hit it with the kitchen sink."

Just three days after diagnosis, Jim Milot went in for awake brain surgery to remove the cancerous tumor.

During the five-hour long procedure, Dr. Sughrue used electric stimulation to turn-off the areas of the brain he was about to remove. The surgeon depends on the patient's response to steer clear of areas of essential function.

"The truth is, when you do surgery in the brain, there aren't a lot of landmarks," Dr. Sughrue said. "Your only guide is... playing the mandolin."

So, Jim Milot played his mandolin to save his life.

"They called me in the middle of the surgery, and they put him on and he was playing his mandolin," said Kathy Milot.

Jim played, counted and read picture cards to demonstrate brain function while Dr. Sughrue and his team worked to make sure he walked out of the hospital just as he walked in.

Jill Cain and Tressie McCoy are in charge of monitoring  cognitive and physical activity during surgery.

"This is the most important two hours of somebody's life," McCoy said. "So we have to be all in."

Jim went home a few days after surgery with no remarkable side effects.

Dr. Sughrue removed 99-percent of the mass and because of the aggressive attack, they are hopeful chemotherapy will destroy the rest.

"Awake surgery is high-risk. It's a stressful surgery by definition because the whole reason you're keeping someone awake is because you're taking it out of an area you're not supposed to be in," said Dr. Sughrue. "It's risky, there's no way around that. But what it allows us to do is to not quit, not give up. We're going to try."

Jim Milot starts chemotherapy this week.

Click here for more information about Stephenson Cancer Center

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