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 a benign tumor pressing on his brain stem.
“I was having really bad headaches,” said the 19-year-old Winstead. “I thought it was my wisdom teeth or something.”
Then, on the evening of June 4, he began to vomit and experienced double-vision. He said nothing to his girlfriend, Hayley Dove, until the next day. Dove decided it was time to take matters into her hands and made him an appointment with Allison Priest, a family nurse practitioner, at Southeastern Health Center in Clarkton.
“… I spoke with Allison Priest and she told me to have her bring him to Clarkton to be checked,” Dove’s mother, Teresa Fell, said 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, but things got serious as she started to asking how Winstead 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.
“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.”
Winstead 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 scan showed a tumor was growing near Winstead’s brain steam and his brain was swollen, triggering the headaches he was having. Priest said she thought of the young couple sitting alone at the hospital and asked Fell to contact Winstead’s mother and be with the couple when they were given the news.
While Fell was notifying the family, Priest said she received another call from a neurosurgeon at the hospital 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. The hospital staff had given him medicine 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. Had Winstead waited much longer to seek treatment, he could have died from the pressure on his brain stem, Priest said.
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 in Lumberton, where he is from, 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.”