Bluffton 16-year-old thought he had migraines. Then doctors found a large tumor

Students across Beaufort County are preparing to return to class, but for 16-year-old Jason Garcia of Bluffton, the start of the school year is less certain.

The rising junior at May River High is recovering after surgeons removed a large tumor from the back of his head — where his spinal cord and brain meet — and he’s waiting to hear whether he’ll need to undergo chemotherapy, radiation or both.

For his mother, Naty Abarca, the uncertainty makes it hard to sleep.

“This is just so difficult for us, and I’m very worried because we don’t know the type of tumor,” she told a reporter in Spanish.

“It could have been there ever since I was little, and it could have been growing and growing,” the teen said about the tumor, which doctors call ependymoma.

Jason had been suffering from headaches and nausea for years before his diagnosis.

“In the morning time, every day — mostly every day when I woke up — I would have a headache,” Jason said.

“The front, the back, the top of my head ... pretty much my whole head (hurt) sometimes,” he explained. “I couldn’t shake my head because that would give me a headache.”

Bluffton resident Jason Garcia, 16, uses the patio door to look at his MRI on Friday morning, two weeks after the 11th grade student of May River High School had a tumor removed from the back of his head near his brain stem. Because his sensitivity to light has heightened since his surgery, Jason wears sunglasses. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

The headaches and nausea were so frequent that they became a normal part of the teenager’s life, but while he and his mother were visiting family members in Guerrero, Mexico, an aunt persuaded them to see a doctor there for what the family thought was a migraine.

That doctor told them they needed to get Jason to a neurologist right away.

The family returned home, and Jason underwent a 10-hour surgery July 22 at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

The surgery was a complicated one because of the location of the tumor, and while Jason is unsteady when he walks, he said doctors are optimistic because he can still talk and move.

For the teen, who enjoys playing soccer and basketball, this is no small victory.

“I’m starting to be able to walk on my own,” he said.

After having a large tumor removed from his head near his brain stem on July 22 at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston Jason Garcia, 16, opens cards after his surgery. Courtesy of the Garcia family Courtesy of the Garcia family

Naty Abarca said she’s hopeful, and that her son’s recovery is happening little by little. She helps him change his shirt and walk around the house.

“I’m feeling very scared though, because we do not know what could be happening next,” she said.

The next steps in Jason’s treatment are still being determined by his doctors, but the teen is thankful for support from friends and family during the eight days he was in the hospital.

“I don’t really like being the center of attention,” he said, “... but so many people came to visit me.”

Lisa Wilson is a reporter for The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. The 25-year newsroom veteran has worked for papers in Louisiana and Mississippi and is happy to call the Lowcountry home.
Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.