10 years after brain surgery, a surprising thank-you from 19,341 feet above sea level

After a frightening diagnosis, Marty Button found hope at Mayo Clinic. Ten years later, she thanked her care team from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

In 2012, Marty Button learned that she had a brain aneurysm. A local ENT doctor offered the diagnosis and arranged for her to go straight to the nearest hospital. Instead, Marty drove to a consignment store, called her husband and wept.

"We had seven children, all under the age of 16, and two of whom we had recently adopted from Ethiopia," Marty says.

From there, the news got worse. Two weeks later, doctors confirmed that Marty had not just one, but four aneurysms. Three of them were not treatable, she was told.

"I felt the lights went out," Marty says.

She was in shock. People told her stories about friends or relatives they had known who'd died suddenly from aneurysms. A nurse offered to connect her with a support group that could help her relearn how to do things like laundry.

"It shut me down," she says.

But all hope wasn't lost. Marty's husband and a close friend insisted she visit with a doctor at Mayo Clinic.

"At first, I was reluctant," Marty admits. "I thought Mayo was for those who had no hope, had exhausted the medical course of treatments, and were just hoping to live for another couple of months."

But Marty's husband persisted.

From 'unmoored' to feeling cared for

Marty's husband resolutely called Mayo Clinic's Department of Neurology and sent Marty's scans. He was driving to hand deliver her records to Mayo Clinic when a Mayo nurse called and asked if Marty wanted to come in to be seen.

On, Dec. 23, Marty met with Giuseppe Lanzino, M.D.

"From that moment on, I felt overwhelmingly cared for," Marty says.

"Having a 'medical surprise' left me feeling unmoored," she says. "My surgery, done anywhere else, would have meant an aneurysm clip and months of recovery. In fact, when I asked the doctor who read my MRI about what to expect after surgery, he said, 'Well, no one's ever quite the same after we get in there and mess with things.'"

But Mayo offered a new procedure.

That procedure involved the placement of a titanium stent. The procedure is far less invasive and seemingly more effective than other options.

Dr. Giussepe Lanzino with Marty Button.

It was a procedure that offered Marty hope for a better quality of life after the operation.

On Feb. 9, 2013, Marty underwent surgery with Dr. Lanzino. After the surgery, she had a week of headaches, and she spent a year being careful with her physical recovery. Then, in time, she started to get back to things she loved — downhill skiing and kayaking, and she even completed a 50K run.

The untreatable small aneurysms got smaller. The treated one disappeared.

Nearly 10 years later, Marty established primary care at Mayo Clinic with Murali Duggirala, M.D., who has overseen her continuing care.

Since things continued to look good, in December 2022, Marty left a message for Dr. Duggirala. Her question: "Would it be OK for me to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?"

Conquering Kilimanjaro

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro hadn't been on Marty's bucket list. In fact, she hated hiking, long plane trips and high altitude. But a friend, also a Mayo patient, who was planning a trip asked Marty to accompany her. And said if Marty didn't accompany her, she'd take someone else in her place.

"There's no surer way to get me to agree to something than to offer it to someone else," Marty says.

So Marty agreed. But she had some questions.

Marty recalls logging on to the Mayo Clinic patient portal to contact Dr. Duggirala with her questions: "Can I do it? Will my head explode? If I need Dimox for altitude but am allergic to sulfa, can I take it? Do I need malaria medication? Do I need additional vaccines?"

Dr. Duggirala called to answer all of Marty's questions and asked her to keep in touch as the trip neared and when she reached the summit.

As I removed my giant mittens and gripped my 'Thank you, Mayo Clinic' sign at the top of the mountain, I felt so grateful to my care team.

Marty Button

Marty and her friend left for Tanzania on Jan. 20. They flew for two days and changed continents three times.

Then the real work began. They hiked 43 miles in 53 hours over eight days.

It was physically and mentally challenging, Marty says.

"On the night before attempting to summit, we went to bed at 6:30 p.m., slept four hours, ate a meal, checked our blood oxygen, took an extra Dimox, and started climbing at 11:30 p.m.," she says.  

At 18,500 feet, she hallucinated. Two people had to turn back. Marty threw up.

"All the women in our group started to cry," she says. "All of the men looked stunned."

But they kept going.

"At 6:45 a.m., we reached 19,341 feet — the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and the top of Africa. The windchill was -20 degrees. We saw the sunrise, and it was glorious," Marty recalls.

Marty Button, left, with her friend Holly at the Mount Kilimanjaro summit.

Marty brought three "thank you" signs on her trip with her: one for her family for supporting her through this once-in-a-lifetime experience, one for her physical therapist, and one to thank Mayo Clinic for ensuring her confidence to try the climb.

"As I removed my giant mittens and gripped my 'Thank you, Mayo Clinic' sign at the top of the mountain, I felt so grateful to my care team," she says.

The next chapter

Since returning from her adventure climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Marty has made a list of things she wants to do in 2023.

On her list: completing a half-marathon in two hours, showing up for her kids and all their things, training two French bulldogs not to come undone when the UPS driver pulls up in the driveway, making sourdough bread from scratch, playing fiddle well enough that the same French bulldogs do not slink toward a door and want to go out, and learning to whistle through her pinkies.

"It's OK to make small and weird goals because maybe you'll find joy in making sourdough bread, while you play an instrument, as your dogs sit calmly during a package delivery, while you whistle, as you show up for the people you love," she says.

She has one more piece of advice.

"My advice for others going through a health crisis is not to hesitate to tell a Mayo doctor about your concerns," she says. "Even if you preface it with, 'This this may be nothing but …' they will help you."

Whatever hill it is you have yet to climb.