Jocelyn Harris was on top of her game. The 24-year-old lance corporal in the U.S. Marines, originally from Michigan, was stationed at Camp LeJeune in southeastern North Carolina. Young, healthy and vibrant, she was newly married to her husband, Jordan, and serving her country as part of a helicopter support team.

Then the debilitating headaches started.

In January 2023, they became so severe that she could hardly function. Jordan brought her hot and cold compresses to place on her forehead and neck and took over Harris’s share of household duties while she sat on the couch for hours, in misery. When the crippling pain persisted for months, Harris visited the medical center on base, where they referred her to Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center, about 90 minutes south in Wilmington. That’s where she learned what she thought were bad cluster headaches were actually something quite different.

Doctors discovered a colloid cyst – a benign sac filled with a gel-like substance – growing in Harris’s brain. Not only was it causing intense pain and pressure, it was also threatening to destroy her memory, and there was even a chance it could suddenly kill her.

Harris’s medical team at the Novant Health Neurosciences Institute - New Hanover had to act fast. Here’s how they protected her health, her future and her dedication to her country.

We're experts in advanced neurological care.

Learn more

An unexpected diagnosis

It had never crossed Harris’s mind that the cause of her headaches could be a mass growing inside her brain. Neurological surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Beecher explained to Harris that the colloid cyst inside her brain had reached a size of 10 millimeters, about the size of a green pea, which classifies as large.

Colloid cysts are rare – Beecher tends to see only a few of them each year – accounting for .5% to 1% of intracranial tumors. They typically develop near a part of the brain known as the foramen of Monro, a fluid junction of the left and right sides of the brain, which drains into the third ventricle.

In this location, a colloid cyst can block the fluid from draining. In young people, the fluid spaces of the brain are narrow, so even a small blockage can cause a big problem.

Jeffrey Beecher
Dr. Jeffrey Beecher

“You can imagine a double sink filling up. You put a plug in the drain, and now everything is backing up,” Beecher said. “The water has nowhere to go. So now the fluid spaces of the brain start to enlarge and push on your brain.”

When severe, this condition, known as hydrocephalus, can stretch the fornix, an area of the brain that is essential for episodic memory function. This explains why Harris had started to experience some memory issues. She struggles to remember the exact sequence of events leading up to the day of her surgery.

What she does recall is a feeling of sadness, fearing that the cyst would jeopardize her future, her hopes for her military career and for having children. She remembers Jordan looking helpless – and she remembers them crying together.

Beecher reassured them: removing the cyst was the way to go. Harris was scheduled to receive surgery just three days later.

Advanced technology and techniques

Top scores for safety in NC

_DSC5477toned

Novant Health just received the most ‘As’ for patient safety in North Carolina from The Leapfrog Group. With a focus on safety, quality and patient experience, the national, industry-leading nonprofit, evaluates and assigns letter grades ranging from A to F to hospitals across the country. Novant Health’s hospitals with “A” grades outperform 70% of hospitals nationwide for safety and quality.

To remove the cyst, Beecher used a minimally invasive, endoscopic technique. This means that unlike typical brain surgeries of the past, he did not need make a large incision in Harris’s skull, or remove any healthy brain tissue to reach the cyst. Rather, he used a small point of entry, about the size of a U.S. penny, in the skull to guide in a narrow tube.

Beecher used neuronavigation, essentially GPS of the brain using highly advanced MRI or CT scan, to place the tube in the exact spot to create a working channel to the cyst. He then used a neuro endoscope, a tiny camera and light, to see the cyst while he disconnected, grasped and removed it.

After the successful surgery, Harris still had a recovery journey ahead of her. Following the procedure, she spent three days in the intensive care unit, experiencing what she refers to as “an out-of-body experience.”

“I was awake, and they were talking to me, I could hear my family talking. But I personally wasn’t conscious,” Harris said. “I wasn’t present yet. My body was healing and trying to restart itself.”

Despite her exhaustion and state of partial consciousness, Harris did experience an immediate significant change: no headaches.

Recovering with Uno

Harris was granted a 60-day medical leave from her job duties to fully recover. Harris’s parents, visiting from Michigan, accompanied her home. During the following weeks, they lounged on Onslow Beach and dined together in nearby restaurants. Harris napped a lot with her two dogs.

“I was exhausted from doing simple activities,” she said. “It took me about three weeks to a month to be fully present after surgery.”

While she made sure to get plenty of rest, she focused on activities to stimulate her brain, too, which she said was “definitely really helpful.” She played critical thinking games like Tetris, and movement-oriented games on the Nintendo Switch.

“I’d play for maybe 40 minutes to an hour, then I’d be exhausted and go to sleep,” Harris said.

One memory that stands out to Harris is playing the card game, Uno, with Jordan – breakneck Uno, since the couple shares a major competitive drive.

“We played that game so often and he would not let me win,” Harris said with a laugh.

Harris and her mom regularly walked the neighborhood together or sat on the back porch to listen to the sounds of nature.

“It was really relaxing,” Harris said. “There’s just so much going on around you when you’re in that state of healing, and you don’t have much control. Just going outside, getting fresh air and being able to watch things move around you in life is comforting.”

Making new memories

Slowly and surely, with the right balance of rest, nurturing and stimulation, Harris’s brain recovered.

During fall 2023, she returned to work with the U.S. Marines, doing a lot of “working with her hands,” ground work to support the helicopter transport of gear, food and supplies to wherever they are needed.

In the future, she looks forward to making new memories with her family and achieving a new sense of normalcy, pain-free.

“And figuring out what I want to be when I grow up,” she said, laughing.

When Harris learned she needed brain surgery, she was scared and overwhelmed. Even now, her memories of being in the hospital are limited. But Harris said that what sticks with her the most today is that she always felt she was being cared for, and she knew she would be safe because of her expert care team.

“Honestly, I was terrified at every part,” she said. “But I never felt like I wasn’t in good hands. I never felt like I wasn’t going to be protected. … Even though I was scared, I knew I was going to be OK. That’s the biggest thing for me.”

NH_Foundation_SupportedBy_Mark_RGB

Dr. Jeffrey Beecher is a recipient of the Guardian Angel recognition award, honored by a patient who felt gratitude for the remarkable care he provided.

The Guardian Angel program at Novant Health gives grateful patients and their loved ones the opportunity to support those in need while recognizing caregivers who made a difference during their visit or stay. Each honored Guardian Angel receives a ceremony informing him or her of the thoughtful gift and a lapel pin to wear proudly.

Watch one of our Novant Health Foundation Guardian Angel pinning ceremonies now, visit this Recognizing Remarkable page and scroll down to the video.

Has someone at Novant Health — a doctor, nurse, aide or other team member — been a Guardian Angel to you or someone you love?

If you would like to honor your caregiver or care team with a Guardian Angel award and recognition ceremony for the care they provided, express your gratitude with a gift through Novant Health Foundation.

100% of your gift supports critical needs in team member well-being and resiliency, or you can select a different area to support patients or programs that are more meaningful to you.

Visit this page, click Honor Your Guardian Angel and select the regional foundation serving your community. Once on the form, remember to check “Yes” near the bottom of the form for your gift to honor and recognize a caregiver or care team Guardian Angel.