Geography undergrad, Four Diamonds beneficiary giving back to Thon

Feb. 20, 2009

By Chris Zook

Geography intern

UNIVERSITY PARK - It was May 10, 2007, and Carl Sherlock, a Penn State geography major from State College, had a terrible headache.

He had just finished his last final exam of the semester and walked from Schwab Auditorium to his Parkway Plaza apartment to wait for the pain to subside.

Time ticked by. Sherlock took painkillers, but the pain didn't go away. He couldn't sleep. Nothing worked.

He finally decided to go to Mount Nittany Medical Center, and he called his family.  He remembers arriving at the hospital, but not much more.

"I was awake when I got to Mount Nittany," he said. "I ... was not conscious after."

Tests showed a brain tumor on the left side of his brain. It had ruptured, causing the intense headache. It was also the source of an aneurysm, a blood-filled bulge in a blood vessel, usually near the brain.

Sherlock was flown from Mount Nittany to Hershey Medical Center, where he underwent surgery to remove what remained of the tumor.

It was just the beginning of a medical ordeal from which Sherlock is still recovering. One ordeal he did not have to deal with, however, was financial.

The Four Diamonds Fund, which assists families of children being treated for cancer at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, took care of the medical bills that his insurance wouldn't pay. His family didn't have to worry about money and could instead focus on his health.

Immediately after his surgery, as Sherlock's period of unconsciousness stretched from hours into days, they had more pressing concerns. There were complications: he developed meningitis, a potentially deadly inflammation of the area around the brain and spinal cord, and he suffered two additional aneurysms and a stroke.

He awoke sometime around May 17, his 21st birthday. The immediate crisis had passed, but a long recovery lay ahead.

Soon, he began physical and radiation therapies.

"I'd wake up and go to physical therapy," he says. "Radiation therapy was every day, at least one hour, for six weeks."

Chemotherapy and regular MRIs soon were added to his routine. He received a chemotherapy session each month for six months, and one three-hour MRI each month until August.

In February 2008, about a week after his fifth chemotherapy session, he developed shingles, a disease caused by the chickenpox virus that causes painful blisters and rashes in a small area of the skin. He began receiving treatment for shingles as well, but by the time the disease had subsided, he'd lost all hearing in his left ear.

Sherlock persisted in his physical therapy, and as time passed, doctors reduced the frequency of his MRIs - first to one every three months, then to one every six months.

He's still dealing with some lasting effects from his ordeal. His left vocal cord was paralyzed during the week he lay unconscious in Hershey. It was a harsh blow to Sherlock, a member of concert choir and chamber singers his freshman year. He also suffered a loss of coordination that means he's no longer able to play guitar, a pastime since he was 8 years old.

"I was pretty good," he says with a grin.

Sherlock makes the best of the situation, saying he still has a "musical intellect," and the blessing of being able to hear music in one ear and in his mind.

And he's managed to keep up with his academic pursuits, returning to Penn State as a part-time student last semester. He also has switched his major, from IST to education, and then to geography. He hopes to eventually work in modern cartography.

"I love maps," he says. "If there was one not-bad thing to come of this, I knew what I wanted to do."

Another good thing was his experience with the Four Diamonds Fund. This weekend, as more than 700 Penn State students take to the dance floor at Bryce Jordan Center for the annual dance marathon to raise money for the Four Diamonds Fund, Sherlock knows where he'll be.

"These people are supporting me," he said. "I'm there."