Brain cancer patient raises $80K for her neurosurgeon at University of Michigan

Christina Costa takes a picture with her neurosurgeon, Dr. Wajd Al-Holou ahead of her surgery in September 2020. (Christina Costa)

ANN ARBOR – The impact doctors have on their patients’ lives can be profound, and one local patient decided to give back to hers in a big way.

Christina Costa, 28, was busy working on getting her PhD in Psychology at the University of Michigan at the end of 2019 when she started suffering from migraines and dizzy spells. After several months of pain and no improvement with her headaches, she was referred to a neurologist and did an MRI at the end of July 2020.

The day of the scan, she received a call late at night from Michigan Medicine.

“‘Go to ER. We found a mass in your brain,’” Costa recalls them telling her. “We went to the ER, we were shown the image and I was introduced to my neurosurgeon for the first time.”

Pathology confirmed that Christina had astrocytoma, which is one grade below glioblastoma -- the most aggressive type of brain cancer. She said her neurosurgeon, U-M alumnus Dr. Wajd Al-Holou, left an immediate impression on her.

“From the second he walked into the ER to surgery, he was just so wonderful,” said Costa. “Where the tumor is located, it’s a very tough position and it’s very large. He thought he could get out 70% of it and got out 98% during a 13-hour surgery.”

Grateful for his guidance and a successful procedure, Costa knew she wanted to do something for him, but she didn’t know what.

Her friends had raised money through a fundraiser so that she could preserve her eggs during the process. At the time of her diagnosis, she and her husband were already thinking about starting a family.

She contacted U-M’s neurosurgery department and a staff member gave her the idea to raise funds for Dr. Al-Holou’s research since he was a new faculty member.

She began selling T-shirts on Instagram at the end of 2020 with a plan to surprise Dr. Al-Holou in January with the funds.

“In the last week of December, an anonymous donor reached out to me and said, ‘I want to match whatever you make,’” said Costa. “It was so incredible.”

After raising $40,000 on her own, the donor matched each dollar raised and she presented Dr. Al-Holou with a gift of just over $81,000 in January.

“We did it on Zoom,” she said. “He explained some of his research and what he’s doing, which is so cool to see. He was just so grateful. He said this kind of money can fast-forward his research. Something he would normally do in four years he could do in one.”

You can watch the video of the moment she surprised him on the post below:

But Costa isn’t stopping there. She just published a first collection of poems that she wrote mostly in waiting rooms throughout her journey. “Kiss Your Brain: Diagnosis Diaries” is already the No. 1 new release on Amazon in the Poetry by Women and Psychologist Biographies categories.

Costa has over 67,000 followers on Instagram and has used the platform to share her journey with the world, including photos following surgery and radiation treatments.

She hopes her experience will touch others going through a similar challenge.

With her first round of chemotherapy and radiation behind her, Costa said she is feeling well as she enters her final academic year to earn her PhD.

To visit her Kiss Your Brain for Research shop, click here.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.