A Year After Spinal Cord Surgery, Woman Runs 100 Miler

By Steve Blanchard - December 15, 2023

Britta Devitt’s car accident very well may have saved her life.

The Tampa Bay dance teacher and long-distance runner was in a minor collision in late 2022. When her neck and back pain refused to ease after treatment, her doctor scheduled an MRI.

This MRI scan shows Devitt's tumor was in the upper region of her spinal cord, near the brain stem.
This MRI scan shows Devitt's tumor was in the upper region of her spinal cord, near the brain stem.

“She found a mass and she wasn’t sure what it was,” said Devitt, 39. “Another scan with contrast was done, which confirmed it was a tumor in my spinal column and they sent me to Moffitt.”

Doctors diagnosed Devitt with an intramedullary ependymoma, which is a cancerous tumor that grows within the spinal column, according to Moffitt Cancer Center neurosurgeon Dr. Andre Beer Furlan. It’s less common in adults than in pediatric cases, he said, and in Devitt’s case, it was high in her spinal cord.

“This was close to the brain stem so there were risks with surgery,” Beer Furlan said.

Those risks included partial- to full-paralysis or dangers to subconscious motor skills like breathing. The risks of not removing it were just as high because it was compressing the spinal column and nerves from within.

portrait of blockquote author

"The challenge with dealing with the spinal cord is that everything is concentrated in a very small space. It involves all the fibers that deal with sensory and motor skills."

- Dr. Andre Beer Furlan, neurosurgeon

“The challenge with dealing with the spinal cord is that everything is concentrated in a very small space,” Beer Furlan said. “It involves all the fibers that deal with sensory and motor skills.”

A cancer diagnosis was the last thing Devitt expected and moving forward with a surgery to remove the tumor was a difficult decision. She’s active and was preparing for her first 50K race, about 31 miles. But she knew she couldn’t wait to schedule the procedure.

“It was all very scary,” Devitt said. “I really appreciate how calm Dr. Beer Furlan was when he explained it, how the surgery would be approached and the details he shared on how the surgery would go. I also had the support of my family and friends, and prayer helped me feel that this was the route I needed to take.”

On Nov. 9, 2022, Devitt went into surgery.

Waking in a Different Body

“When I woke up, I could move my arms and legs, but I couldn’t feel a thing,” Devitt said. “My feet couldn’t feel the floor and my butt couldn’t feel the chair. I was suddenly in a very different body.”

Beer Furlan said that in cases like Devitt’s, patients see the most improvement in the first year following their procedure. Year two also sees improvements, although not as drastic.

“There is always a risk in complex cases like this,” Beer Furlan said. “We used an operating microscope to resect the tumor. Once we open the lining of the spinal cord, we bring in the microscope to dissect.”

The procedure lasted about eight hours.

Devitt was at Moffitt for eight days after the surgery and then underwent two weeks of physical therapy. She was determined to regain control of her body.

Britta Devitt praises friends and family for helping her through a challenging procedure and year.
Britta Devitt praises friends and family for helping her through a challenging procedure and year.

“I remember when Dr. Beer Furlan came into my room one night after a day of surgeries and told me I would run again,” Devitt said. “I asked him when, and he admitted that he didn’t know, but I knew he was right.”

Beer Furlan describes neurological recovery as a marathon rather than a 100-meter sprint.

“I tell patients it’s going to be frustrating and that they won’t see improvements every single day,” he said. “It’s like going to the gym. You know if you keep doing it day after day you’re going to be fit two years later.”

Devitt started small. She first had to relearn everything from writing to fixing her own hair. Eventually she was able to walk again, teach dance and, eventually, run. More than a year later, she still experiences numbness, but she’s grateful for being able to drive, feed herself and walk.

Remarkably, she was back at work as a dance teacher by the end of January 2023. Soon after, she began training for her 50K, even though she had to relearn how to feel her body.

Running with Purpose

Six months after her surgery, Devitt returned to the world of running and competed in her first 50K. Participating in what is commonly called an “ultra” in the running world had been a goal for several years. She was still getting used to the numbness in her body but was determined to make the run.

Britta Devitt was back to running six months after her surgery.
Britta Devitt was back to running six months after her surgery.

“I was excited to do it, but it was really difficult,” she said. “I did it again in July.”

It was shortly after the July run that Devitt learned about the Tampa Bay 100, a 100-mile race that begins in Ybor City, winds through Tampa, crosses the Courtney Campbell Causeway to Clearwater before ending in St. Petersburg.

“It was painful,” Devitt said. “My feet hurt, my knees hurt and there was one problem after another. But there are challenges in life no matter who you are or where you are, and that’s why I like running. It’s a challenge I chose but it gave me confidence and strength.”

Friends paced her to the finish in 37 hours And it just so happened that the run was in November – exactly a year after her surgery.

“It felt monumental a year after surgery,” Devitt said. “Last year, I was sitting in Moffitt recovering and now I was running through the entire city. It was cool to be able to do that.”

After her experience with cancer, Britta Devitt has her sights set on even more marathons and ultras.
After her experience with cancer, Britta Devitt has her sights set on even more marathons and ultras.

As Devitt continues to train for marathons and ultras, she will also need to monitor her health. While intramedullary ependymomas rarely spread, there is always a chance of tumor cells reappearing in the spinal cord or brain.

“We’ll monitor her for the rest of her life,” Beer Furlan said. “Our scans showed that the resection was complete and there were no signs of the tumor spreading cells to her spinal fluid.”

That’s good news for Devitt, who’s learned a lot about herself over the past year.

“It’s OK to be angry and frustrated when something like this happens, but don’t be afraid,” she said. “There is always hope and that’s what I tell others. My body is different, but it has healed so much, and I have so many people to thank for that.” 

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Steve Blanchard PR Account Coordinator 813-456-3342 More Articles

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