A positive outlook and fighting spirit helped a substitute teacher for Waynesboro schools survive a massive brain tumor she clinically died from for eight minutes.
Jenny Hinojos of Zullinger was just 40 years old when she began losing her field of vision and experiencing strange changes in her personality in 2003.
“I started to get mean, irritable and aggressive and I had no idea why,” she said.
Her face would droop for no apparent reason, and she was convinced she was fine.
“I was in complete denial,” the 48-year-old former nurse said. “I refused to go to the emergency room.”
Walking time bomb
Hinojos was having her eyes checked at Fort Detrick in Maryland when the doctor told her she failed every exam he gave her.
“I told him he was crazy,” she laughed.
The doctor insisted she see an ophthamologist and explained to her husband, Dennis, a retired Army staff sergeant, that she needed to see the specialist because it was a matter of life and death.
“The ophthamologist told me I had a swollen optic nerve, which usually means something is seriously wrong with your body,” she explained.
In November 2003, a CT scan confirmed she had a 3-pound meningioma tumor the size of two softballs that was blocking her cerebral fluid. Hinojos was a walking time bomb.
“I still argued with the doctor,” she said. “My cerebral fluid was being compressed and nothing made sense to me. Plus, I wasn’t going to confess to my kids that I was wrong” about not being sick.
Hinojos was given two options — six months to live or surgery with a 30 percent chance of survival.
Doctors also warned her if she did survive the surgery, she would more than likely not lead a full life.
“When you go in for the surgery, you have to have your obituary written and your funeral planned,” Hinojos said. “We’re a Christian family and we prayed together. We came to the conclusion that surgery was the only option.”
The Hinojoses’ children — Matthew, now 22, and Hollie, now 18 — were in middle school when the tumor was found.
I always knew you were going to make it through,” Hollie told her mother. “You always had a positive outlook.”
On Dec. 17, 2003, Hinojos was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the first part of her surgery, a five-hour angiogram and embolization.
“The doctors wanted to put five clips on the tumor to prevent blood loss during surgery,” she explained. “They were only able to get two clips on because the tumor was so big. The surgeon told my husband the prognosis wasn’t good.”
Hinojos was then taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for the 12-hour removal of the tumor. A surgical team at the hospital — Dr. Michael Rosner, Dr. Carrie Smidt, Dr. Mike Bell and Dr. Doug Neal — was dumbfounded when they reached the mass.
“The blood in your brain flows one way,” she explained. “My tumor was reversing the blood flow. They called three specialists, including one at Johns Hopkins and another at the Mayo Clinic, for advice because they were giving up hope on me.”
The tumor was determined benign, or non-cancerous, and the surgeons carefully removed it from Hinojos.
“After they took the tumor out, I died,” Hinojos said. “I flatlined for eight minutes and had a total near-death experience. I told them what time they pronounced me dead, what music they were listening to, what they talked about and what kind of shoes my one surgeon was wearing. They confirmed all of that later.”
“It’s the most pleasant, calming feeling,” she recalled of the experience. “I saw these bright lights and I didn’t want to go back, but something told me to go back.”
Road to recovery
After Hinojos was revived, the doctors learned she had developed three blood clots in her brain that prevented her from moving and eating. She took medication to dissolve them, but was not progressing like she should. Ten days after the surgery she was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C.
“They told me and my family that I was coming home in a wheelchair and to have the house ready because I would never walk again,” she said. “I looked at the team (of doctors) and told them, ‘No, you haven’t met Jenny. I’ll prove you wrong.’ I had to have personal determination that I was going to win. I had kids to raise. My life at 40 wasn’t over. God put me here for a purpose and my purpose is to help people realize when you’re given lemons, make lemonade.”
She said a strong support system and communication are key in surviving such an ordeal.
On Jan. 7, 2004, Hinojos started aggressive therapy to learn to walk again. She developed an exercise regimen to do in bed at night to help her body start moving again. On Feb. 1, 2004, she took her first steps, and was able to go out to dinner with her family to Red Lobster on Valentine’s Day 2004.
“On Feb. 21, 2004, I went home walking with 61 staples in my head from ear to ear,” she said with a smile. And she still has every one of those staples.
“I was given a clean bill of health two years ago,” she said. “The doctors don’t know if I was born with the tumor or if it started to develop when I was an infant. My tumor is the biggest one on record of its kind in the U.S. and is currently being studied in the Midwest.”
Hinojos shares her story with her students at Waynesboro Area Senior High School, with various area churches and with others who have been diagnosed with brain tumors. She encourages people to have their eyes checked regularly.
“I also tell my students, ‘If somebody tells you that you can’t do something — Prove. Them. Wrong.’”