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Just another hurdle: Surgery to remove brain tumor couldn't slow Morgan Wells

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Morgan Wells LSU 3.jpg

LSU Athletic Communications photo by BRYAN WAYNE -- LSU's Morgan Wells

Standing outside of the Indigo Park Apartments one hot June afternoon, Morgan Wells wore an LSU track T-shirt — suitable attire for him, a reminder of his days as a walk-on hurdler for one of the best programs in the country.

He placed a black scarf over his head. The scarf was suitable attire, too: It covers sutures that will be removed sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Wells, a Shreveport native, had turned away from his full scholarship at McNeese State after two seasons, transferring to LSU and attempting to earn a roster spot at the state’s flagship school.

After sitting out a year, he joined the team in 2015, earning a small role. His dreams were coming true.

A year later, just after his senior season concluded, everything changed.

On June 10, Wells visited Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, suffering from migraines and vomiting. Something was wrong.

Shortly thereafter, he was crying, scared by a life-threatening diagnosis. He had a brain tumor called meningioma in his left lobe.

During a week of treatment, he had two procedures. The first was embolization, in which doctors cut off all the nerves, arteries and blood supply to the tumor to stop the bleeding during the second operation.

The second was the remover. He was supposed to be sedated for both procedures, but the air conditioning went out in the operating room, causing Wells to be awake during the embolization.

He almost didn’t make it.

“It was some close calls the next day,” he said. “I almost had a stroke where they could’ve lost me a couple times. But I had some of the best surgeons in Louisiana, so they worked it all out, thankfully.”

A winding road to LSU

It wasn’t an easy route for Wells to earn a roster spot at LSU. He had to get his release from McNeese, and he also needed to drop his race time significantly to earn any chance to run hurdles. He picked LSU because of the school’s reputation as a track powerhouse.

As a Louisiana native, he knows what the school means to people.

“People respect LSU like a religion,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”

Wells said he faced a lot of questions from those who doubted his ability to compete at LSU. It never got the best of him.

Coming from a single-parent home, Wells often found himself surrounded by troubled times in Shreveport. He said he lost a lot of family members and friends to death or jail time.

It only motivated him to be better. He kept coming back to a saying he likes to live by: Faith and worry can’t coexist.

“If you are going to worry about something, then you do not trust your faith,” Wells said. “So if you are going to have faith, then you have to be truly devoted to that quote. If you are going to be a strong man, then be a strong man. If you are going to encourage somebody, then encourage somebody. Don’t do anything 50 percent. Do things 110 percent every time — no matter what the outcome is.”

Throughout his life, Wells has cleared hurdles.

For years, he had bad migraines, sinus pressure and vomiting spells. He thought they were normal — some sort of on-and-off-again sickness.

On Feb. 5, hours before the New Mexico Collegiate Classic in Albuquerque, he threw up. The symptoms were getting worse. He was vomiting entirely too much, and the migraines didn’t stop.

At long last, he realized his condition was serious.

The hard news

His doctor, Luke Corsten, laid out the hard news: He didn’t have a stomach virus. It was a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball.

Wells cried. Still, he tried to stay calm. Corsten’s confidence, Wells said, settled his nerves.

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, meningioma is a tumor, often benign, arising from the coverings of the brain and spinal cord. Headaches and weakness in an arm or leg are the most common symptoms. They represent about one-third of all primary brain tumors.

Wells’ mother, Randi, remembers hearing the news and feeling it rip through her heart. She had to live with the knowledge that she had to accept her son’s condition. She couldn’t fix it.

“I love him because he’s been my heartbeat,” Randi Wells said. “This was a call no mother ever wants to hear — especially when your child is miles away, and all you want to do is protect them in your arms. I knew I had to maintain my composure. But this was my baby at that moment.”

Wells’ best friend, Tevon Remo, felt like he had been hit by a train.

“My grandfather died from a brain tumor in the exact same place as his,” Remo said. “So I was afraid of losing my best friend.”

Wells’ brother, Brandon Wilson, immediately thought of the “what-ifs” — the worst-case scenarios. He tried to lean on the traits he knew his brother had. Morgan Wells has perseverance and toughness, he thought. That will help him get through.

Before Wells’ second surgery, Wilson saw five or six staff members who would be working on his brother. They all introduced themselves to the family and friends. Wilson breathed a little easier: He knew Wells was in good hands — their hands, he said. And, just as importantly, God’s hands.

“Honestly, I was extremely nervous because, with these types of situations, you never know what could happen,” Wilson said. “One complication, and the procedure could affect the rest of his life. ... Going in, I could only think about all the things he has accomplished. I just didn’t want to see him work so hard to not be able to fulfill his goals.”

When Remo went to visit Wells before surgery, he expected the worst — or, at the least, a few signs of despair. He didn’t see either.

“When I walked into the room and saw him in his bed, he was cool, calm and collected, like he was there for a checkup instead of brain surgery,” Remo recalled.

Throughout Wells’ stay in the hospital, pre- and post-surgery, he remained positive. When he saw his mother and grandmother worrying, he tried to lighten the mood with some humor. He said he wasn’t worried; he just wanted to go to sleep.

“If anyone knows Morgan, you know he doesn’t let anything get him down,” Wilson said. “But I could also see he was afraid.”

This, after all, was brain surgery.

The road back

The surgery was a success. The tumor was gone. And Wells? He seemed to be doing OK.

The day after surgery, Wilson received a video of Wells sitting up, talking, eating and holding conversations, plain as day.

It blew his mind. Doctors told Wilson that the location of his brother’s tumor could affect his motor skills, speech and vision. They said he could be unconscious for days. Instead, he was fine.

“This is the easy part,” Wells said. “I am alive now.”

Once again, he had cleared a hurdle.

Wilson couldn’t wait to see it. That day, he had a job interview in Dallas, but that didn’t keep him from getting to his brother.

“We’ve both seen each other at our highest and lowest points,” Wilson said. “But no matter what, we had each other’s back, and this couldn’t be any different.”

He flew from Monroe to Dallas for the interview. Then he flew from Dallas to Baton Rouge, via Atlanta.

“I took three flights that day because I knew I had to be there,” he said. “If the tables were turned, I knew that he would have done all the same things, if not more.”

Wells was released from the hospital June 19. He had his own place, a normal life and an internship, and he wanted to get back to all of it.

But it’s not that easy.

He needed time to recover, to do anything major. He had physical therapy.

During rehab, Wells had to regain his depth perception and proprioception — his body’s and brain’s sense of itself, its ability to understand how to move.

It took two or three days to move around normally. His sleep schedule was out of whack.

One day, Wells got a bowl of chili from Wendy’s and brought it home. Struggling to maintain his balance, he accidently knocked it off the table. Eating should be as easy as it gets; instead, chili was all over the table and the floor.

Later that night, before he went to bed, Wells was sitting on the couch. In the process of standing up, he hit his head on the corner of the wall. His perception was off; everything appeared closer than it was.

Eventually, his sense of normalcy returned.

Being like Mike

Wells graduated from LSU this spring and has just started his postgraduate journey, interning with the LSU strength and conditioning program, teaching speed concepts.

After transferring from McNeese — after the track season, after the tumor, after the surgery and after the rehab — Wells was all too happy to be a regular intern again.

“It kept my mindset (that) this is just another struggle to beat,” he said. “This is just another hurdle to leap. I was forced to be mentally tough growing up, and it came into play here.”

A normal day now consists of working with athletes, maintaining the facility, staying upbeat and learning from everyone else.

He once worked so hard to become an LSU athlete, to become part of the school Louisianians take so much pride in. Now he has that experience, and it helps him connect to the special sense of pride the other athletes have.

And, hey, if he can beat a brain tumor, he can beat just about anything.

“I have a message and a purpose that is easily relatable,” Wells said. “I can connect with a lot of people at my internship that are overcoming battles of their own. I want to teach and be an inspiration at the same time.”

Wells is preparing for graduate school. He was planning to look into other schools, but now? After all this? He is almost certain he will stay at LSU. The level of loyalty at LSU, he said, is on another level.

Coach Dennis Shaver visited Wells multiple times, sending a clear message: In addition to his own family, he has an LSU track family, one that encourages and prays for him.

Shaver also saw how positive Wells remained.

“Morgan is and always will be a part of the LSU family,” Shaver said. “He is a great young man with a bright future ahead of him. Most importantly, Morgan has the most positive outlook on life and has always been loved and respected by his teammates. While we were all concerned for Morgan, we never had any doubt that he would come through this challenge better than ever.”

Wells even embraces a connection with Mike VI, the school’s live mascot who was diagnosed with a rare, terminal form of cancer. He and Mike were at the same hospital.

“I see him all the time on campus because I walk by there every day,” Wells said. “Mike is a fighter, too, so hopefully he pulls through. ... I might have to have a heart-to-heart with Mike to see if he responds. We are some survivors out here.”

The road ahead

Post-surgery, Wells understands he has to be more cautious.

He realizes, if he has any problems, he will go straight to the doctor, without hesitation.

Every so often, he’ll walk around his apartment complex, taking joy in it. He has full mobility again, so he enjoys the sunlight and being able to move slowly, taking his time.

At the moment, he still suffers from slight headaches, swelling and dizziness. But he feels much better than after the first couple of days post-surgery.

Wells wants to tell his story, to give motivational speeches about overcoming adversity. He has no problem uplifting others, helping them get through any struggle. Most things in life aren’t as daunting as brain surgery.

He reminds himself of his favorite Bible verse, Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not, for I am with you.”

After all, faith and worry can’t coexist.

Follow Canaan Cadwell on Twitter, @canaancadwell.