Brain tumor teaches school resource officer lesson on accepting support

Becky Campbell • May 31, 2018 at 11:50 PM

Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy Mitzie Hensley, like most law enforcement officers, has faced her share of danger in her 20-year career.

But now she’s facing the scariest thing she could imagine — an extra/intra cranial meningioma.

If there’s anything positive about the tumor, it’s that it is benign.

“It’s not cancer,” Hensley said, but is has impacted her life much like a cancer. Although the tumor is not malignant, it needs to be removed before it takes over the nerves and blood flow in her neck. After years of swallowing and voice problems, Hensley said she’s found the path through the health issue.

The medical part of the solution is mostly covered by insurance, but the treatment is in New York and the costs associated with a month-long trip for her and her husband are daunting.

Hensley’s law enforcement family, friends, relatives and the community at large have banded together to help make the trip possible. The sheriff’s office has organized a fundraiser event with a barbecue meal, musical entertainment and a live and silent auction.

The event is scheduled for June 7 at Grace Meadows Farm from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Tickets are $15, kids 5 and under eat free and all proceeds will go toward Hensley’s travel expenses and medical costs not covered by insurance.

Where it started

Until October 2017, Hensley didn’t know what was happening to her. The first symptom came 19 years ago when she was pregnant with her son. She woke up one day and had a raspy voice much like a case of laryngitis.

She didn’t give it much thought, until it never got better and her OB doctor suggested she get it checked. Hensley did and learned she had an thyroid issue and a paralyzed vocal cord. Her ear, nose and throat doctor couldn’t explain why it had happened, but the prognosis was that the damage was permanent.

Her thyroid was removed, but her voice didn’t get better.

About three years ago, Hensley began noticing subtle changes in her neck area — she had what doctors said was an enlarged lymph node, there were issues with the left side of her tongue that later were diagnosed as palsy, she began having trouble swallowing food and liquids and often had violent coughing fits. Hensley also had problems with her left shoulder muscle.

Throughout the years, Hensley learned to cope with the problems she had and did her best to not let it affect her job, even though her raspy voice made it more difficult raise her voice to be heard at times. Still, she continued to work as a deputy and began teaching DARE classes in Washington County schools and eventually became a full-time School Resource Officer.

Getting Answers

Last fall, Hensley experienced the most violent coughing and choking incident she’d ever had and decided she needed to address what was happening. A return visit to her ear, nose and throat doctor, Dr. Timothy Zajonc (rhymes with science), led to a full head MRI. She’d had multiple CAT scans and MRIs over the years, but only from the neck down. This one captured Hensley’s whole head — and the mystery began to clear.

What appeared on that scan turned out to be a mass at the base of her skull. Zajonc sent her to Vanderbilt Medical Center for more testing, and a biopsy revealed she had a tumor called a meningioma that had calcified. Further tests showed the tumor had encased her carotid artery and intertwined itself through skull canals and around several nerves in her neck.

Her relief over learning what was wrong was brief, because doctors at Vanderbilt said it was too dangerous for them to operate. They wanted to wait and watch it or do radiation.

Neither option was acceptable for Hensley, so she started back at “square one” with Zajonc.

“Twenty years of waiting to see what happens is too long. If it’s not removed it will continue to grow and will cause life-threatening injury,” Hensley said. In some ways her life is just beginning — she recently married her husband who has been a rock through the health scare — and Hensley isn’t willing to just watch and wait for the tumor to keep growing.

Zajonc was able to connect Hensley to New York-based physician Dr. Peter Vincent Costantino. He’s the executive director and senior vice president of the New York Head and Neck Institute and the Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Service Line of the North Shore-LIJ Health System. Hensley had to go through even more testing that Costantino reviewed before he would accept her as a patient.

Waiting for word

Even after finding out Costantino would operate on the tumor, there was an initial visit to his clinic in early May for more tests, and Hensley learned just how expensive and confusing a big city can be — $60 for all-day parking, attempting to figure out the subway, trying to find the right office buildings after walking block after block, just to name a few.

After several days in New York for multiple tests, Hensley was sent home to wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, last week she got word that there was a surgical plan in place and a tentative schedule for the operation in the next few weeks.

Community Support

Throughout the ordeal of trying to get medical treatment, Hensley kept friends and family updated through Facebook, and one of her first observations in the doctor’s office was:

“There (are) 15 people sitting in this office waiting like me. People of every nationality. I can't help but wonder what each person’s story is for being here or how far they may have traveled to get here also. I’m not special, but just like everyone else in life. Dealing with the struggles life brings. I hope they have as much love and support that I know I am blessed with. Feeling grateful.”

Little did Hensley know just how much support she would have back home.

Her department and the community have rallied around her and are working to help mitigate the financial impact of the trips to New York.

Hensley said she’s never been one to easily accept help from others. She was brought up to work hard and take care of yourself.

Since the tumor was diagnosed, and the reality of what it will cost to get the surgery, Hensley has relented and accepted the outpouring of support everyone has offered, and she is grateful for everything people have done for her.

“This is a brotherhood. This is family,” she said. “It’s been a blessing and a life experience of learning that it’s OK to lean on others.” She said that sharing her experience has been helpful in dealing with it, but she’s ready to get the surgery done so she can go on with her life.

“I don’t take life for granted. I try to find the positive in everything and focus on that,” she said.


To donate directly to Hensley’s medical cost fund, mail checks written to Mitzie Hensley, c/o the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Attention: Leighta Laitinen, 112 W. Jackson Blvd., Jonesborough, 37659

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