Kelly Stafford shares story of brain tumor diagnosis, 12-hour surgery

Kelly Stafford is slowly returning to her normal life after a life changing diagnosis earlier this year.

DETROIT – Kelly Stafford is slowly returning to her normal life after a life changing diagnosis earlier this year.

Kelly, the wife of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, was diagnosed with acoustic neuroma, a slow-growing tumor on the main nerve leading from the inner ear to the brain.

Stafford underwent surgery that went from six hours to 12 hours. For the first time, she opened up about the diagnosis, surgery and recovery with Local 4.

'Here's your brain tumor'

Stafford said it all started when she began feeling lightheaded and dizzy during activities during the day.

"You know how they tell you to get up slowly, because you could be lightheaded and I've had that before," Stafford said. "When I got up, it was a completely different feeling. And the room just started spinning on me. I grabbed the bed a little bit and I sat down and I called the lady back in and asked will you bring me some water? Got some water, stood up, happened all over again."

After repeated episodes, Stafford decided to seek medical attention. At first, she went to an ER doctor, who prescribed her medicine for vertigo. But the symptoms persisted.

The Staffords were in California when the decided Kelly would get an MRI to see what was happening.

"I remember Matthew gets a phone call and I'm sitting there with all three of our girls, just hanging out on the floor. Matthew gets a phone call and I can kinda tell his demeanor a little bit. The phone call probably lasts 5 minutes, and he gets off, and I was like "Who's that" and he's like "Asheesh". I said "Oh okay, what's going on?" 

"And he goes "Well, I don't want you to worry, they said they found something in your MRI. We probably just need to go get it checked. I kinda brushed it off. I didn't think twice about it. Until they sent us the doctor we were going to and it was a neurosurgeon at UCLA. That's when I was like, okay, this is interesting."

"We sat down, she pulled out my MRI, and she was like "Okay, well here's your brain tumor."

Previous coverage: Kelly Stafford, wife of Lions QB, to have slow-growing brain tumor removed

"I don't think, I really had time to process it while we were in that room. I just listened to her, and she was like, well we will set you up in the next couple weeks to have some follow-ups or if you want to talk to some other doctors. Both of us were like, we can't wait a couple weeks. You just dropped this on us and you want us to wait to talk to other doctors," Kelly continued.

"I remember sitting down, with him in the waiting room and just losing it. Just thinking about our girls and the unknown. But I also remember looking around in that waiting room," Stafford paused, with tears in her eyes. "At all the other people sitting there waiting to get looked at."

"I remember one girl had the scar on the back of her head that was pretty fresh. And reminding myself that people go through this every day. It's not just me. But it was just a really tough moment in my life but as I looked around, I pulled strength everybody in the room."

'Ran into a hurdle'

The Staffords decided to return home for the surgery at University of Michigan Hospital with Dr. Byron Gregory Thompson, Jr.

"He said things that the other doctors didn't even mention that meant a lot to me. When we walked in, he said I'm going to do my best to preserve your hearing. It's important, but you have another ear," Kelly said. "What I want to focus on is your facial nerve. I want to make sure that that is what it is right now. That's something that the other doctors didn't even really mention."

"Yeah, he was incredible before, during, after. Really -- his whole team. He'd be the first to tell you that." Matthew said. "I remember, sitting in the waiting room. I was given an old school beeper, and they were giving me updates. It was taking a lot longer than expected."

"It was kinda like "ran into a hurdle, expect the surgery to go two hours longer than expected." Updates like that. "Everything on track, Kelly doing well." Those were the messages I was getting. You don't really know the extent of what's going on," Matthew continued. "When he finally came out and talked to us, we understood why it took longer than expected. He did an incredible job."

"When they opened me up, I had an abnormal vein -- maybe abnormal for other neurosurgeons, but not the one we chose. He had seen it before and written a paper on it. That's truly God's work," Kelly wrote on Instagram after the surgery. 

Returning to a quiet home

After about a week, Kelly returned home from the hospital. 

"The hardest part about it was coming home to a quiet home. I knew that's what I needed and I knew that's what the doctor said I needed. But when you go through this, the first thing I want to see are my kids," Kelly said. "I'm re-learning how to move again. There would be nothing I could do for them. Except for sit there and watch them. So I knew that was what I needed and it wasn't what I wanted."

"Every day, Matthew would come and help me out of bed, walk to the sink, brush my teeth," Kelly said.

"I'm normally very upbeat with my kids. I'm loud, that's just who I am. I couldn't get that energy up to be that mom that I normally am with them. I felt like they read it immediately. And what was even worse was I knew they weren't coming home. I met them at a little playground because I didn't want to be stuck in a house where I couldn't move."

Kelly said she couldn't have made it through those days without her amazing support group.

"I could not have done it without this man next to me but also without all the support of the people that are close to us. We had parents here, siblings here, my mom was here for a long time. Our nanny is exceptional. I trust her more with my kids than I trust myself," Kelly said. 

"I told Matthew, I think about those people who go through this and don't have these privileges that we have and how they heal. They have to be complete rock stars because I truly don't know how I would have done it without these people."

For Matthew, he said he just tried to be there for Kelly as much as he could.

"It was tough. I'm admittedly not great at being the most empathetic person. I don't know why. I'm just that way," Matthew said. "What do you do when somebody tells you your wife has a brain tumor? You can't read a book on that. So I just tried to be there for her as much as I could."

During the first days of recovery at home, Kelly was having vertigo symptoms.

"They said coming out of it, her symptoms might even be worse to start before her body re-learns how to walk and do all these things again. It's going to be worse for a couple weeks. That first night I was like, oh god, we went from somewhat functioning with some dizziness to rock bottom. She was in a bad place," Matthew said.

"I see her now and I'm just amazed honestly. Her mom was incredible. Allowed me to get back to football a little quicker. That and how well she was doing."

Stafford said the Lions were great in offering him flexibility and support during the process.

"The Lions were great. They really were. Put no pressure for me to come back at any point. I showed up the second Monday, everybody had been there for a week. I showed up the second Monday and our trainers were like, what are you doing here?"

"I just came in super early in the mornings and would get my work done, and I would sit in the team meeting just so guys could see me, there and then I would head back to the hospital or here and try to help out here all day, and then wake up and do it again. She turned the corner relatively quickly to where I felt ok leaving her here with her mom. Because days one through ten were like, we needed all hands on deck just to get her to and from the bed."

How she's doing today

"I feel amazing," Kelly said, adding she feels close to her old self.

"The energy...they said it would take like a year for my energy to be back to what it really was. Your brain gets tired quicker because it's trying to figure everything out. I push myself. I do try. It's because I have great support when I come home."

About the Authors:

Hank Winchester is Local 4's Consumer Investigative Reporter and the head of WDIV's "Help Me Hank" Consumer Unit. He works to solve consumer complaints, reveal important recalls and track down thieves who have ripped off metro Detroiters.