Although McAtee studied excessively, he had difficulty using his right arm to complete everyday tasks, such as finishing bubble tests. In addition, frequent vomiting and headaches interfered with McAtee’s academic time.
After months of visits with his regular doctor in Wilmington, McAtee’s doctor referred him to UNC Hospitals neurologist, Dr. Nishidh Barot.
Barot ordered an additional MRI study. As soon as the results came back, Barot asked McAtee to go to the ER immediately. The new MRI showed a golf ball-sized tumor in McAtee’s brain called megaloblastoma. Barot also informed him that Dr. Sivakumar Jaikumar would have to perform brain surgery on McAtee with only two days notice.
UNC Lineberger surgeons cut into the back of McAtee’s head and pulled his muscles back to drill into his skull and remove the tumor. Luckily, the tumor was isolated and not attached to anything else in his brain. The surgeons allowed McAtee to keep a small piece of his skull that they had drilled out during surgery.
“Whenever I get the money … I’m gonna make it into a necklace. People are going to be like ‘What’s that?’ and I’ll be like ‘my skull,’” said McAtee.
Surgeons removed 80% of the tumor in one surgery and removed the other 20% ten days later in similar surgery. Then, Dr. David Morris used radiation therapy to eliminate the remaining tumor cells that they couldn’t see. Twelve weeks after radiation therapy has ended, McAtee has returned to school and is recovering from the side effects of radiation.
“It has been a fight, just one thing after another, for months on end. The only reason why I could make it through is people. I’ve had tons of people help me out,” said McAtee.
McAtee said he was surprised to see the outpouring of support from his friends, family, church and his campus ministry group. In addition to the cards, prayers, letters and money McAtee received, his part-time employer, Jack Sprat Café, coordinated a benefit concert to help him pay for his medical costs.
“Never underestimate the people and how much they care,” he said. “I get to repay it or pay it forward the little ways I can.”
Calling up a friend who recently was diagnosed with breast cancer is one of the ways that McAtee is ‘paying it forward.’ He said he would tell her, “Look, it does suck … but you are not alone. People come out to help you, sometimes in droves and it’s just amazing. As long as you let people know what you’re going through, you’re never alone.”
He also said he appreciated the care and attention that UNC Lineberger staff provided him. “The nurses and the staff here, they see this kind of stuff all the time. Hundreds of people and hundreds of different patients and they’re caring about every single one of them, which is amazing. You’d think they’d get tired of that, but they’re not.”
Throughout the hardships of cancer and recovery, McAtee said he focuses on the positive side. “I have a lot of reasons to be depressed, but I’m not. I’m here.”