Two days after learning she had a non-cancerous tumor on her spinal cord, the personal finance expert underwent a 10-hour surgery to remove it

By Wendy Grossman Kantor
August 20, 2020 09:30 AM
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For years, finance expert Suze Orman has urged people not to ignore their money problems. Now, following a complicated emergency surgery last month to remove a tumor from her spine, Orman urges others to not ignore signs of health problems — like she did.

“I’ll never make that mistake again,” she says during an exclusive interview with PEOPLE.

“That was a journey from hell and back,” says Orman, 69. “I sure learned a lot about life, I’ll tell you that much.”

Orman spent most of last year ignoring signs that something was wrong with her body. She first noticed a problem in late October, when she was in Miami taping a PBS Special.

“There was about five steps to go up to the stage, my right leg couldn’t quite pull me up the stairs,” Orman says. “I just grabbed the rail and I pulled myself up and I didn’t think about it. I did the whole show standing for about four or five hours. I’ve performed with 104 fever with 5000 people. The show goes on. You get in the adrenaline, and you just do it.”

Suze Orman recovering at home in Florida
Courtesy Kathy Travis

Over the next several months, when Orman and her wife, Kathy “KT” Travis, went for a walk, sometimes Orman’s right knee would buckle. But she ignored it because she was busy. In February, her book, The Ultimate Retirement Guide was published and she was focused on her new Women & Money app  and podcast.

“I knew what was happening in the economy,” she says. “I knew people were going to need it. My real concern, honest to God, was those people who were going to lose everything.”

So she kept working.

Quarantining at her home, she noticed her right arm was getting weaker. “I was dropping my fork,” Orman says. “As I was eating, I couldn’t eat – my fork wouldn’t stay in my hand.” She couldn’t use chopsticks, had difficulty writing, lost weight, and her wife noticed that her right leg was atrophying.

“She said, ‘Suze you lost all the muscle in your back of your leg,’” Orman remembers. “Something was wrong. Something was obviously wrong.”

Orman wondered if she needed a hip or knee replacement. But in early July, X-rays showed that her hip and knee were fine.

Later that month, Orman got an upper body MRI. When the first scan was completed, she heard her physician’s voice in the room.

“He said to me, ‘Suze, we found something….And we don’t like what we found,’ ” Orman remembers. “As soon as I heard his voice. I was like, ‘I’m in trouble.’ What doctor comes into an MRI room?”

Suze Orman in surgery at Brigham & Women's Hospital
Courtesy Kathy TRavis

The scans revealed a 3.2 centimeter schwannoma – a non-cancerous, slow-growing tumor, that affects about one in a million people. Doctors think the tumor may have been there for 15 years or more.

“The spinal cord was wrapped around it, so we didn’t see it. No one ever detected it,” says Travis, 68, her wife of 10 years, and President and Director of brand innovation for Suze Orman Media worldwide enterprises. (They met at a dinner party 19 years ago.) “This was very one off, very rare, very unexpected.”

The next morning, Orman and Travis spoke with a surgeon at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“He said, ‘Suze, I am begging you to come here and let us do this. This is not an operation that any doctor can do. This is a serious thing,” Orman remembers.

Her surgery was scheduled for two days later.

RELATED VIDEO: Suze Orman Breaks Down the Relationship Between Women and Money in the #MeToo Era

Untreated, the tumor would have caused progressive weakness and possibly led to paralysis, says Dr. Michael Groff, vice chairman of neurosurgery and the director of spinal neurosurgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Orman feels lucky the tumor didn’t cause more catastrophic problems.

“One big jar and I would have been a quadriplegic,” Orman tells PEOPLE. “If I had twisted the wrong way, or I had been in a little car accident, or a little hit on the boat the wrong way, the spinal cord would have severed.”

Surgeons explained that removing the large tumor was a very complicated, risky procedure.

“Her surgery was more difficult than the typical case,” says her surgeon, Groff.  “The spinal cord was draped over the back of the tumor, so we only had access to a very small part of the tumor…. We can’t move the spinal cord out of the way, so we have to work around it.”

Suze Orman
Suze Orman/Facebook

After more than 10 hours in the operating room, the approximately 20-person medical team was able to remove the entire tumor. Orman showed immediate improvement.

The night after surgery, Orman was giving financial advice and money lessons to the nurses and staff.

“All through the night,” Travis says. “All night long, she had people sitting in the room with her, asking them questions, and giving them financial advice. It was extraordinary.”

RELATED: Suze Orman Underwent Surgery to Remove a Benign Tumor That Had to ‘Come Out Immediately’ 

Now recovering in her south Florida beach home, Orman is isolating with her wife.

Twice a day, she does a 20-minute series of physical therapy exercises sent by her medical team in Boston to help her regain strength and balance.

“None of my patients have approached recovery with more grit and persistence than Suze Orman,” Groff says. “She’ll continue to get better and better. Suze is a remarkable person. She’s already made tremendous strides in her recovery. I think she’ll get back to normal.”

In the meantime, she’s resting, healing and planning for her future.

“I’m making a lot of changes in my life and my money. I’m going to put it toward the women doctors that want to help women,” Orman says. “I have a whole different perspective on things.”

Most importantly, she vows to not ignore her health again.

“Suze learned a huge lesson: and that lesson is when your body speaks to you, listen,” Travis says. “Suze always spent her life taking care of everybody else. She takes care of millions of strangers. She takes care of me. She takes care of our family. She’s always, always putting people first. That’s her credo: People first, then money, then things. Now I think she’s learned that she needs to listen to her own body. It was shouting at her."

For more about Suze Orman's journey and recovery, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.