Public Health Grad Helps Diagnose Sister’s Brain Tumor

Kacey Sabourin, MG21, was frustrated with the lack of diagnostic options available due to COVID-19, so the School of Medicine alum decided to investigate her sister’s symptoms herself

Standish, Maine native Mysti Sabourin began having headaches, spells of hearing and vision loss, and hand tremors in December 2019 – shortly before the pandemic made doctors inaccessible and appointments impossible to get.

Mysti, who is autistic and experiences communication difficulties, found it challenging to describe what was happening, but the physical symptoms became so apparent her family began to worry.

After moving back to Maine from Boston due to COVID-19, Mysti’s younger sister, Kacey Sabourin, MG21, was frustrated by the lack of diagnostic options available. So she decided to investigate the symptoms herself.

“Seeing care providers was a nightmare,” Sabourin remembers. “It just became this ping-pong back and forth between care providers all throughout the state of Maine, with significant delays in getting referrals and testing.”

Armed with the skills she was developing to earn a Master of Public Health (MPH) from Tufts University School of Medicine, Sabourin scoured academic journals while her mom dove into other digital resources accessible from home.

“I started to use the resources of PubMed and Google Scholar and several other databases that I wouldn't have known without being a part of the MPH program,” Sabourin said. “I was looking in journals that weren't in the United States that had random one-off cases, and after hours and hours of literature review and cross matching all of this data, I had a list of six potential diagnoses­and literally all of them were calling for imaging.”

Months after Mysti began presenting with these symptoms, Sabourin and her mother were able to convince Mysti’s physicians she needed definitive testing.

“I knew the research was solid,” Sabourin said. “I didn't care who gave her the MRI. We just needed someone to put in the order.”

The Sabourins were stunned by the test results.

“She ended up having a meningioma,” Sabourin said.

Mysti’s noncancerous brain tumor had grown to about five centimeters, or the size of a lime, by the time it was diagnosed. The next steps happened quickly. Mysti was admitted and surgeons were able to remove the entire tumor.

“Knock on wood, we're a little over a year-and-a-half out and she’s good,” Sabourin said. “It's amazing. But I remember going through all of that with family and I don't think I would've ever been able to understand how to use the resources I used without having gone to Tufts.”

A Common Thread

Tufts University has always been a part of Sabourin’s life—even when she didn’t know it.

As a child, Sabourin was treated by a Tufts University School of Medicine graduate for a congenital heart defect. Then as a teenager, she became interested in the Maine Track program and set her sights on studying rural medicine. After earning a bachelor’s degree at St. Joseph’s College in 2013, she started exploring Tufts advanced degree options.

Sabourin felt like the stars aligned when she visited Tufts health sciences campus in Boston in 2013.

“I remember walking around going, ‘I am not a city person and I love the area,’” Sabourin said. “I automatically fell in love with it. And I remember telling my family, ‘I have to go to school here.’”

Sabourin was initially interested in studying medicine, but after working in clinical roles that connected her to patients in dental, chiropractic, and prenatal practices, she realized that it might not be the right fit.

I was trying to figure out a path where I could dig into the science of medicine without necessarily treating patients,” Sabourin said. “When I was working on the clinical staff, I couldn’t help but get very involved with patients and make emotional connections with them. It was very raw.”

So, she pivoted her plans to public health and came to Tufts in the fall of 2019.

Despite the challenges of finding an apartment (and quickly moving out of it due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and easing back into school in her late 20s, Sabourin was glad to have made the move.

“I remember being overwhelmed because I hadn't been in school in so long at that point,” Sabourin said. “I was almost 30 years old and quite a bit older than a good portion of my classmates. And at one point I sat down with my then-advisor.”

Janet Forrester, an associate professor of public health, told Sabourin there was one thing she needed to remember: That everyone was going through the same thing she was. Forrester then drew what to Sabourin looked like a squiggly line. But it was representative of something much deeper.

“She told me everyone's going to have hills and valleys throughout their journey, no matter where they are in life, even with grad school,” Sabourin remembered of the drawing.

“And when you're in one of those valleys, it's hard to see the next top coming. But once you're at the top of the next point, you can look back and see how far you've come,” Sabourin said.

Now, Sabourin and Mysti live in apartments in the same building outside Portland, where they’re able to check in on each other regularly as Sabourin works from home as a health science specialist and project manager with the U.S Department of Veteran Affairs.

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