I sang opera while surgeons removed my brain tumour

By Debbie Jackson
BBC Scotland

image source, Sarah-May Philo
image captionSarah-May Philo after her brain surgery

A stand-up comedian had her doctors in stitches as they performed life-saving brain surgery.

Sarah-May Philo told jokes and even sang the opera classic Ave Maria as surgeons removed a tumour during a nine-hour operation.

The 34-year-old comic and special needs teacher from Dennistoun in Glasgow knew she would have to be awake to measure brain function but her dialogue with medical staff went beyond all expectations.

When Sarah-May Philo suffered a seizure in 2016, doctors uncovered a tumour in her brain she had been living with symptom-free for more than 15 years.

The tumour - called an oligodendroglioma - had to be removed and she would need to be awake for most of the operation.

image source, Sarah-May Philo
image captionSarah-May and fiance Paul Griffin

She told BBC Radio Scotland's Mornings with Michelle McManus: "They found a tumour which was apparently taking up half of my brain. They said it had taken a long time to grow and my brain had just adapted and survived.

"Functions on my brain were on the wrong side because of it - they called me an unusual case.

"They gave no other option than to operate. They had to get it out, or at least try to get most of it out."

image source, Sarah-May Philo
image captionTheatre staff were entertained by patient Sarah-May but the "show" served an important monitoring purpose

She explained; "They took the size of a tennis ball out of my head and left 15% of it behind because it would have affected my speech and movement to remove it.

"Because I stayed awake the whole time, they could tell when my speech was affected or when I couldn't clench my first. So I effectively had to continually talk for eight hours."

The surgery took place in March this year at the Queen Elizabeth University hospital in Glasgow.

But things took an unusual turn when Sarah-May was brought to consciousness on the operating table.

As a comedian she was used to talking, but then the powerful pain killers kicked in.

image captionThe operation took place at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in March this year

She said: "It was formally only the speech and language therapist who was to talk to me.

"But by hour three or four, the whole surgical staff and the anaesthetist were chatting away and making jokes.

"At one point the surgeon behind me said 'Oops!' and I was like 'what do you mean, Oops, you're in my brain!'"

When she revealed she was an operatically-trained singer, Sarah-May was asked to give the theatre a song, and ended up performing a version of Ave Maria to an appreciative captive audience.

She made up songs about the staff around her and teased the surgeon as he worked.

Sarah-May said she found the whole process fascinating.

image source, Sarah-May Philo
image captionSarah-May after her surgical procedure
image source, Sarah-May Philo
image captionSarah-May has blogged about her treatment and shared scans of the tumour

She added: "I have always loved medical programmes. The fact it was me didn't hit until much later and I was just very, very curious. I got them to take pictures and now I have an album of pictures of the inside of my brain!"

Sarah-May said the surgery was the best part of her treatment.

After struggling with radiotherapy and chemotherapy, she is feeling better and has returned to her job as a special needs teacher.

Her comedy is still on the agenda and she thinks there's a show-worth of material in her operating table experience.

She said: "The future is bright now. I didn't make the Edinburgh Festival this year but I'll be back next year for sure."

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