“People are kind of shocked that I’m back so soon — ‘Holy cow, you’re back, Zach!’” he said.
Two weeks after his successful surgery, life is back to normal. He went camping over the Fourth of July weekend, returned to work and is spending this week in South Dakota with the Powell Panther football team as a coaching assistant.
Except, it isn’t quite life as usual for Wagner.
For the first time, the 19-year-old isn’t suffering from seizures. Before the June surgery that removed most of a benign brain tumor, Wagner endured as many as 10 to 15 seizures each day.
“There would never be a day without a seizure,” he said. “Now to have none; that’s a drastic change.”
The extremely rare tumor, called hypothalamic hamartoma, is located in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that regulates critical functions. Without surgery, the tumor — about the size of a jellybean — causes worsening seizures that eventually affect other regions of the brain.
“It’s small for most tumors, but big for that location,” he said.
Going into surgery, Wagner knew odds of fully recovering and being seizure-free were about 33 percent.
“I was kind of scared. Well, really scared,” he said.
Out of 26 adults who have undergone the procedure, 10 are now seizure-free, 10 showed some improvement and six had no change at all, said Becky Wagner, Zach’s mom.
Knowing surgery was his only option for a seizure-free life, Wagner said he decided “it was time to saddle up and ride.”
“I had the prayers of the town of Powell, and that really comforted me. I know it made a big difference. The good Lord had his hand in the surgery as well,” he said. “It’s a blessing to live in this community, where so many people are supportive.”
“We really do live in a wonderful community,” Becky Wagner agreed. “It’s been a long road, but now, it’s like I have my son back.”
At a May fundraiser, the community raised $40,000 to help with medical and travel expenses.
Wagner was treated at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Scottsdale, Ariz., one of the few hospitals in the world that specializes in hypothalamic hamartoma research and treatment.
“It’s comforting dealing with the best in the world,” he said.
Wagner came out of surgery with better results than the best scenario.
“It was just a miracle. Even the doctors said, ‘This is a miracle surgery,’” he said.
When he awoke from surgery, “I could feel a difference right away,” Wagner said.
Prior to the surgery, Wagner had struggled with short-term memory loss issues. He couldn’t remember who he had talked with on the phone, even just moments after a call.
“I wouldn’t know who I talked to or what we had talked about,” Wagner said.
After surgery, he noticed an immediate difference in his short-term memory and cognition.
“It’s amazing to see how well he’s doing,” Becky Wagner said.
For years, the brain tumor also had affected Wagner’s sleep. He often awoke during the night, and never quite felt rested.
“I never reached a deep sleep,” he said. “I’d always wake up feeling like I hadn’t slept.”
Since the tumor was removed, he sleeps well and has more energy.
“The sleep has been the biggest change — and, obviously, no seizures,” Wagner said.
Time will tell whether the surgery remedied other complications related to the tumor.
Wagner developed diabetes inspidus, a rare condition that occurs when kidneys are unable to conserve water as they filter blood. The amount of water conserved is controlled by the body’s antidiuretic hormone, which is produced by the hypothalamus, where his tumor was located.
“The hypothalamus controls thirst ... and my brain didn’t know how much water I had,” Wagner said. Sometimes, he would drink 4 to 5 gallons of water a day.
While the tumor was mostly removed, it’s still uncertain whether any complications will remain.
“It will take three months to see if he is seizure-free,” Becky Wagner said. “There’s a lot of improvement, but he isn’t out of the woods yet.”
Wagner must do some rehabilitation, including speech therapy that will help his cognitive thought process. Wagner also is waiting to drive a car until he makes sure he is seizure-free.
He continues to work as a therapy and wellness tech at Gottsche Rehab in Powell and plans to return to Northwest College.
“Onward from here,” he said.