Alec Cohen/Daily. Buy this photo.

Last spring, Rackham student Christina Costa had a migraine that caused the left half of her face to go numb. During the summer of 2020, she experienced dizzy spells and seizures with increased frequency and was treated at Michigan Medicine. There, an MRI revealed she had an anaplastic astrocytoma, a rare type of malignant brain tumor that is usually not curable but is treatable with chemotherapy.

“I fell to the floor — I can’t even describe it,” Costa said. “I mean, it’s like something from Grey’s Anatomy.” 

Costa went into her first surgery at Michigan Medicine on Sep. 8, 2020 and finished her first cycle of radiation and chemotherapy this past January. 

Costa said she was grateful for the positive experiences she had with her doctors, especially her neurosurgeon Dr. Wajd Al-Holou, leading her to begin a fundraiser to support Al-Holou’s brain tumor research. The fundraiser began in Dec. 2020. 

“I was working with a therapist and (my therapist and I) developed this technique where I would set my timer for thirteen minutes, which was one minute for every hour that Al-Holou was in the OR with me,” Costa said. “At the end of those thirteen minutes, I would just be like, ‘Okay, if they did that, if they worked on me for thirteen hours, then I can do today.’ ” 

Costa said Al-Holou transformed a terrifying experience into one Costa felt she could manage.

“My neurosurgeon is just the best, I remember,” Costa said. “From the moment I met him… he just made me feel so safe …during the time when I really should have felt the opposite. And then during the actual surgery hospital stay, which was a very scary thing.”

After the diagnosis, Costa continued working on her degree and research from home and will be teaching a psychology seminar at the University of Michigan in Fall 2021. 

Costa’s plan was to raise $5,000 selling T-shirts on her Instagram page, but she said the campaign quickly spiraled into something she never expected. Costa raised a total of $40,550 from her social media campaign. In the last week of Dec. 2020, an anonymous donor matched her earnings, resulting in a grand total of $81,100. 

“So many people got shirts, so many people donated and then I had the anonymous donor, which was awesome,” Costa said. “And that was like all of December — it was just the coolest thing for me.” 

Al-Holou graduated from the University’s Medical School in 2009 and is a neurosurgeon who specializes in the management of complex brain tumors. His research focuses on identifying precision medicine therapies to treat resistant tumors and discovering the genetic causes of recurrence in glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer that affects the brain or spinal cord. 

“The question is, how can we treat a tumor that’s changing, and how do we treat tumors so heterogeneous?” Al-Holou said. “The only way is to really understand that heterogeneity, and so what I’m really trying to do is understand the heterogeneity at the microscopic level, understand where are the different cells, how do they interact with each other, how do they drive this treatment resistance?”

Al-Holou said the money Costa raised will help his team expedite their research. 

“A lot of the sequencing studies that we’re doing are very new, very novel, very state-of-the-art and very expensive,” Al-Holou said. “A study like this, that would normally take years to do, will go much faster now that we have money.” 

Al-Holou said he was overwhelmed by the money that Costa raised for his clinic’s research and thankful that the money helped raise awareness about complex brain tumors.

“Stories like Christina’s are what inspired us, me and my colleagues in the brain tumor world,” Al-Holou said. “This is what keeps us going. These patients, their stories, their background, the experience that they have is what drives us and motivates us to do our job.”

The team treating Costa also included neuro-oncologist Dr. Yoshie Umemura and radiation oncologist Dr. Daniel Wahl, who are all members of a neuro-oncology multidisciplinary team at Michigan Medicine.

In an email to The Michigan Daily, Wahl explained the many benefits of collaborating with a multidisciplinary team when tackling a complex medical condition.

“We formed a ‘Team Clinic’ last year where patients can visit all three of us in a single day in one clinic room,” Wahl wrote. “This allows the three of us to discuss the cases altogether, provide patients with a coordinated care plan and make sure the patients know about the most promising clinical trials here at Michigan Medicine.”

Daily News Contributor Anna Fifelski can be reached at afifelsk@umich.edu.