CLARKTON — Dakota Winstead had almost gotten used to having migraines. But over the course of time, those migraines came more often, lasted too long and brought on other symptoms. That’s when he was all but forced to get it checked out, and what he was told immediately changed his life.
The nagging migraine was really a benign tumor that was pressing on his brain stem.
“I was having really bad headaches,” said Winstead, 19. “I thought it was my wisdom teeth or something.”
Then, on the evening of June 4, he began to vomit and started experiencing double-vision. He said nothing that evening when he spoke to his girlfriend Hayley Dove. It was not until the next day that he mentioned the nausea and double-vision to Dove that she decided it was time to take matters into her hands and made him an appointment with Family Nurse Practitioner Allison Priest at Southeastern Health Center in Clarkton.
“I was on my to his house to get ready for work,” said Dove. That was when she learned how bad Winstead was feeling and she told him he needed to go see a doctor. Dove said she called the clinic and set up an appointment for Winstead for the same day and went with him to the appointment.
“Teresa (Fell) came from the hall and said Hayley’s boyfriend was having headaches,” said Priest.
Fell said that, on June 5, her 17-year-old daughter called and told her that her boyfriend was very sick with a migraine that he had dealt with for a couple of days.
“She was going to take him to Urgent Care or somewhere to have him checked out. I spoke with Allison Priest and she told me to have her bring him to Clarkton to be checked,” said Fell in an email. “He came in around 1:30 p.m. and she examined him and gave him a shot for the pain of his migraine, but she decided to go the extra step. She sent him for a STAT CT of the head because of the severity of the headache.”
While she awaited the couple’s arrival, Priest said she didn’t really know much else about Winstead’s condition. She said once the couple arrived and were checked in she noticed that his vital signs were fine. When she entered the examination room, she said they were joking with one another, and then things got serious as she started to ask Winstead questions about how he was feeling.
“He explained he had these headaches for two months, but in the past week they had gotten worse and he was seeing double,” said Priest.
She asked what he had taken and Winstead told her Tylenol and Ibuprofen, which he said helped some but the headache never really went away.
Winstead did say that, along about 2 or 3 p.m., the headaches would seem to ease up for a bit before coming back.
“I asked him if it was the worst headache of your life? He said ‘yes,’” said Priest. “As a provider, I felt he needed to get a CT scan.”
After discussing it with Winstead, he agreed to have a CT scan the same day and Dove drove him to Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton, where Priest had ordered the scan.
The couple arrived at SRMC at about 2:30 p.m. and the scan was performed. Priest said said the scan showed a tumor was growing near Winstead’s brain steam and his brain was swollen, thus triggering the headaches he was having. Priest said she thought of the young couple sitting alone at SRMC and asked Fell to contact Winstead’s mother and go be with the couple when they were given the news.
While Fell was notifying the family, Priest said she received another call from the neurosurgeon at SRMC who instructed her to have Winstead transferred to Duke University Medical Center as quickly as possible.
Winstead flew out at about 7:30 p.m. He recalled the staff at SRMC had given him medicine in the hospital that made him groggy but he remembered looking out of the windows of the helicopter a time or two.
He also recalled talking to his father, who is a truck driver and was away from home at the time, over the phone and having to break the news to him.
“As soon as I told him, I couldn’t understand him,” said Winstead.
The next day he underwent surgery to remove the 5.9 cm benign tumor. It was learned that, had Winstead waited much longer to seek treatment, he could have died from the pressure on his brain stem within hours, said Priest.
Just the day before his diagnosis, Winstead said he had gone to work but that it was painful to turn his head.
For Dove, it was a terrifying experience to go through with her boyfriend.
“I was scared. I couldn’t do anything but cry,” said Dove.
But the ordeal may not be over. Winstead said doctors at Duke told him there is a 6- to 15-percent chance the tumor could recur.
“I’m just thankful that it was benign,” said Winstead, who is a student enrolled at Robeson Community College and is planning to major in either radiography or nursing.
“We owe his life to Allison and her quick thinking,” Fell said. “We were later told that had he not had the CT scan, the tumor would not have been found so quickly and because it was pressing on the brain stem, there was a strong possibility that he could have stopped breathing within 24 hours. I know that Allison was just doing her job, but I feel that had it not been for her, we would have lost him.”
Some headache facts
Priest said headaches come in different varieties. There are sinus headaches, cluster headaches, and migraines to name a few.
She said the time to come in and seek help for a headache is when the headache lasts for more than three days.
Priest said if you have a headache coupled with nausea, vomiting, double vision or other visual disturbances, seek help.
She added folks who suffer from migraines will sometimes experience visual disturbances, but they know if the pain is from a migraine or not.
Most importantly, she said, a red flag is, “If it is the worst headache you have had in your life.”