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Helicopter pilot and U.S. Army veteran Joe Brennan is ready to fly again, a year after neurosurgeon Jennifer Moliterno, MD, removed a brain tumor originally thought to be inoperable. 

Thanks to YNHH neurosurgeon, once-grounded pilot is ready to fly again

A tumor was the last thing helicopter pilot Joe Brennan considered while he was doubled over in a bathroom in the middle of training with the worst headache of his life. 

He’d been having the bad headaches for nearly two years, but found he could relieve them by stretching his neck a particular way. He told a concerned instructor he would be fine, but the instructor insisted he see a doctor.

 “I was in the Army, where you learn to tough things out,” said Brennan, 58, of Shelton. “Besides, the last thing anyone who flies wants to hear is that they’re out of commission and have to stay on the sidelines.” 

It turned out the debilitating headaches resulted from an aggressive tumor growing at the base of his brain, on the brain stem. Backed-up spinal fluid was putting pressure on his brain stem, causing the pain. Brennan was told his tumor was inoperable because of its location. The brain stem is a very small area that connects the brain to the spinal cord and controls vital functions such as breathing, heart rate and swallowing. Instead, doctors placed a shunt in his brain to alleviate the spinal fluid pressure and reduce his headaches. 

Jennifer Moliterno, MD, chief of Neurosurgical Oncology, clinical director of the Chênevert Brain Tumor Center at Yale Cancer Center and director, Neurosurgical Oncology Fellowship, Yale School of Medicine, first saw Brennan’s images at Smilow Cancer Hospital’s weekly Tumor Board months after the shunt was placed. She knew that without treatment, Brennan’s tumor would continue to grow and again threaten his life. 

“I said, ‘I need to see him. I can help that guy,’” she recalled. 

“When no one else was certain they could perform this surgery, Dr. Moliterno held her hand up and said, ‘I got this,’” Brennan recalled. “She was confident and told me flat out, ‘I can do this, safely.’ I’ll never forget that when I first met her.” 

It was a challenging procedure, but Dr. Moliterno specializes in complex brain tumor surgery and has successfully performed similar procedures. On Jan. 22, 2022, she removed Brennan’s tumor.

Brennan’s recovery was lengthy and difficult, due in part to the tumor’s effect on his brain and the deconditioning he’d experienced. He had to learn to walk again, regain a significant amount of strength and improve his swallowing. 

But just over a year later, his headaches are gone and he has returned to normal life. Brennan recently passed his annual flight tests and is awaiting FAA clearance to resume flying. 

“People always say I'm the miracle, but I say the real miracle is everyone else,” he said. “I tried to tough it out. I thought I knew my body, that I’ve always known what to do given any situation. But the others in my life, Dr. Moliterno, my girlfriend, who is a nurse, the guys at work who said I needed to get checked out because this was serious – they grounded this tough pilot to listen to others. I owe all of them my life.”