Lindsay Kimble
May 10, 2017 09:00 AM

 

For months, comedy writer Jeannie Gaffigan brushed off her recurring headaches, dizziness and coughing fits, blaming the symptoms as byproducts of life as a working mom of five.

It wasn’t until she began to lose her hearing, however, that Jeannie – the wife of comedian and actor Jim Gaffigan – decided to push for answers, ultimately learning the unimaginable: she had a tumor the size of an apple wrapped around her brain stem.

“I was a ticking time bomb, waiting to be paralyzed,” Jeannie, 47, says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.

It was a benign papilloma of the choroid plexus that had likely been growing for over a year, says her surgeon, Dr. Joshua Bederson, Professor and System Chair Department of Neurosurgery at The Mount Sinai Health System in New York City.

“All function of the brain passes through the brain stem and out into the body,” Bederson explains. “And her brain stem was compressed.”

  • For more from Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Jeannie and Jim, 50, say a “miracle” lead them to Bederson.

After their initial shock wore off, the couple mobilized, reaching out to friends and family, who suggested they turn to the neurosurgery team at Mount Sinai.

“We found the top guy,” says Jeannie. “But we had no expectation that we could get him.”

The couple planned to walk into the hospital’s emergency room with their scans in hand, but through connections were able to meet immediately with Bederson, whose scheduled operation had – in a twist of fate – been delayed.

Robin Marchant/Getty

On April 18, Jeannie went into surgery, which took over nine hours and involved cutting-edge virtual and augmented reality technology. It was ultimately a success.

“We were prepped for the understanding that good news would be like, ‘We got 85 percent of it,’ ” says Jim. “But they removed all the tumor, and there was no damage to her 12 cranial nerves.”

As long as there’s no residual tumor found at Jeannie’s three-month, post-operative MRI, Bederson says, “she should be cured.”

I'm coming back! Thanks for your prayers. I'm alive!

A post shared by @jeanniegaffigan on

Unfortunately, recovery hasn’t been easy. Jeannie battled aspiration pneumonia before returning home, where she’s now recuperating with a temporary tracheotomy and feeding tube in place.

“The progress has been pretty amazing, but we’re far from normal,” admits Jim.

Still, the pair say the entire ordeal has reaffirmed their faith and helped them understand the importance of compassion.

“My whole life has changed,” says Jeannie. “The people who have come out of this have shown me how loved I am.”

Adds Jim of the response from friends, family – and fans, “People are so generous, it’s really made me believe that there’s hope for humanity.”

The couple praises all of the physicians and doctors who helped them – including Bederson, Dr. David Godin, Dr. Pamela Hops and PA Leslie Schlachter – and say they hope others will learn to prioritize their personal health.

Says Jeannie, “I want to help people get through the worst news that you can get.”

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