By Ann Marie Shambaugh
For most students in Carmel High School’s sophomore Honors English class, the assignment to read “Brain on Fire,” a memoir about a young woman with a brain tumor that led to madness, was just more homework.
For Bella Simons, it was personal.
The 15-year-old sophomore received the assignment her first week back to school after spending six weeks in Chicago getting radiation treatments for a brain tumor.
“At first I thought it was just cruel irony, but at the end I was glad that I read it,” said Bella, who experienced many things described in the book, but not insanity. “I think it ended up being a positive experience.”
After reading “Brain on Fire,” Bella said her classmates were better able to understand her situation and even did a report comparing and contrasting her battle with the author’s.
“It’s almost like it became an opportunity for them to understand what Bella’s going through,” said Tasha Simons, Bella’s mother.
Bella’s classmates are one of many groups that have stepped up to show their support as the Simons family has spent the school year dealing with the tumor. The CHS track team recently adopted her as an honorary member, and Grace Church held a special service to pray for healing, among others.
‘A scary experience’
The trouble began on the first day of school when Bella got her first migraine. The unrelenting headache soon was accompanied by frequent vomiting and balance problems.
Doctors first diagnosed Bella with anxiety – a surprise to Tasha, who has a master’s degree in counseling – but it soon became clear that something else was causing the symptoms. Bella eventually saw a neurologist, who scheduled her for surgery the next morning after an MRI showed a noncancerous tumor blocking the drainage of spinal fluid.
After having two catheters inserted in her brain, Bella went to Chicago for six weeks with her mother for radiation treatments to shrink the tumor.
“It was a scary experience, because nothing really prepares you to lie down on a table and wait for a proton beam to hit your brain tumor,” Bella said. “It was painless but it was very scary to go through.”
During her time in Chicago, Bella was encouraged by visits from close friends from Grace Church, care packages from teachers at school and private tutoring arranged by CHS to help her keep up with her studies.
In January, Bella returned to school part time. Despite missing many weeks, she has maintained a high GPA and is on track in her four classes.
“Despite feeling terrible, facing a frightening illness, and having to be out of class for most of the quarter, Bella opted to stay in (AP European History), despite it being an elective and worked very hard to learn the material on her own,” said Tracy Hadden, a social studies teacher at CHS. “She was able to maintain her grades and her love for learning throughout the entire process. She really is an inspiration.”
Looking at Bella, most people don’t realize what she’s been through, or that the battle is not over yet. She still gets daily headaches and has other symptoms, and a recent MRI showed – to the family’s surprise – that Bella had two brain tumors. One has disappeared, while the other has grown.
“They’re recommending another brain surgery,” Tasha said. “That’s very, very frightening, because it was horrible the first time.”
Bella is scheduled for another MRI on April 28, and the results will help determine the next step in her treatment. Until then, the family is asking for prayers that the tumor will shrink, and they are relying on their Christian faith to help deal with an uncertain future.
“When they tell you that you have a brain tumor and you’re doing surgery tomorrow, you can’t really do anything but just trust everything will be ok,” Bella said.
The family is planning to visit Hawaii in early June, a vacation organized by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. If another surgery is needed, they hope to schedule it for after the trip. But Tasha said planning ahead is often futile as her daughter’s health is unpredictable from day to day.
“What I’ve learned is life is precious,” Tasha said. “You really have to live in the present, because there are generally no guarantees.”