Fortuitous traffic stop leads to life-saving surgery

March 22, 2023
A still image from a traffic stop with a woman leaning against the outside of her car holding her head
In a still image from the body-worn camera footage taken by the Mount Pleasant Police Department, Tamara Palmer can be seen struggling to stand as she clutches at her head. Photo provided

Tamara Palmer had to be told where it happened. 

It was just after lunchtime on a Friday, when Mount Pleasant Police Department officers were alerted to a red SUV driving erratically on Mathis Ferry Road. Behind the wheel of that car, Palmer remembers very little – just the point when things started to slip away. Her vision began to blur, and her muscles stopped working.

“My arms felt like overcooked spaghetti,” she said. 

When police finally caught up with her, the 58-year-old was swerving badly, going from lane to lane, even hitting the curb at one point. Officers suspected she was driving under the influence, so they pulled her over.

Palmer recounted the story not from memory but from watching the body-worn camera footage of her traffic stop. In it, one officer could be heard asking, “You haven’t had anything to drink today?” the judgment in his voice evident.

Palmer hesitated, then said, “I did.”

There was a short silence that followed before she added: “Two cups of tea.”

Stifling a chuckle, officers administered a breathalyzer after which Palmer asked if she could lie down. Within minutes, it became evident to police that she wasn’t drunk, rather, she was suffering from a serious medical condition. What went from a potential ride in the back of a squad car quickly turned into one in the back of an ambulance.

At the hospital, doctors stabilized Palmer then ran her through a series of tests, followed by a CT scan. There, on the screen in front of them, the problem was undeniable: She would need to have surgery immediately. As nurses wheeled her back to the OR, she remembers telling MUSC Health surgeon Alex Vandergrift, M.D., “If I die, please don’t feel guilty.”

‘Steam in the sky’

It was 4 a.m. when Palmer walked out the front door of her apartment one April morning in 1986. Up to that point, it was like any other Saturday for the then-22-year-old. She got dressed, ate breakfast and then headed out for her weekend run. And then she looked up.

An old, yellowed photo of a woman sitting on a park bench with her toddler daughter in her lap 
Tamara Palmer with baby Issa at a park in Pripyat, Ukraine, the day before the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Photo provided

“There was all this steam in the sky,” she said. “It was so weird.” 

Less than two miles away, through the woods – in the same direction as all the steam she was seeing – was the place where she and all of her neighbors got their electricity: the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. 

Palmer finished her 6-mile loop, but curiosity got the better of her, and when she returned home, she turned on the radio. Local officials were saying the steam was from some tests being run at the plant; citizens didn’t need to worry.

Just 36 hours later, Palmer and her 1-year-old daughter, Issa – along with more than 49,000 others – would be evacuated to a small town on the Black Sea, as the rest of the world looked on in horror. Her husband, who worked for the power plant, and was considered part of its critical staff, would stay behind – a choice that would ultimately cost him his life. 

For 10 years, displaced from her hometown of Pripyat, Ukraine, Palmer resided in Kyiv. During that time, due to what Palmer believes was radiation exposure, her daughter slowly became sicker and sicker. At age 10, Issa would need surgery and medicine – two things severely lacking where they lived. So she got a temporary visa and flew to the United States, where Issa got the medical attention she badly needed. 

Years passed and the two continued to extend their visas, until one day, Palmer made it official: She and her daughter became U.S. citizens. In the decades that followed, she would go on to get remarried and have two more daughters, now ages 23 and 25. In 2015, Issa died tragically in a motorcycle accident.

“She’s my angel,” Palmer said, talking about her late daughter. “I believe I’ll see her in heaven.” 

Making a connection

In Ukraine, Palmer was a successful hairdresser. But when she came to the states, getting a job doing people’s hair – any job, really – was nearly impossible, since she spoke very little English. So she did odd jobs, mostly working as a housekeeper, all the while slowly picking up the language. Eventually she started her own cleaning business, but the death of her daughter brought everything in her life to a halt. 

“I was just so lost at that time,” she said. “Everything stopped.”

Months passed. Eventually, Palmer found happiness again in the laughter of children. A natural with the kids in her church’s Sunday school, she was asked by a fellow parishioner – who knew she was looking for work – if she’d ever thought about working in a day care. Intrigued by the possibility, Palmer started looking for jobs, eventually landing one as a teacher’s assistant at a preschool in Mount Pleasant – a position she’s now held for the past seven years. 

Which is where she was headed – back to the school after her lunch break – on that fateful afternoon when the incident in her car happened. 

Later that day at the hospital, doctors immediately recognized what they saw on the scans in front of them: a giant meningioma on the left side of her brain. Though benign, it was particularly worrisome because of its size. Vandergrift, the surgeon who led the team during the four-hour procedure to remove the tumor, described it as “the size of a nice big orange at Trader Joe’s.”

A series of three CT images of Tamara Palmer's head, each showing an orange-sized tumor in her brain 
A CT scan of Palmer's head before the operation shows the giant meningioma located in the left side of her brain.

Vandergrift explained that meningiomas – tumors that arise from the meninges, or membranes, which surround the brain and spinal cord – often grow slowly and typically come to attention due to circumstances unrelated to the tumor, like a fall from a ladder, a sinus infection or, in Palmer’s case, a suspected DUI. Their causes are varied, but one of the more common is exposure to radiation. Though Vandergrift and Palmer can’t know for sure, they both suspect her tumor might have gotten started 37 years ago, on that fateful April morning in 1986. 

Woman posing for photo in church 
Palmer is back to living a normal life, which includes going to church every Sunday. Provided

Looking back, it seems all too obvious to Palmer. 

“As soon as I got back home from my surgery, I started doing research on meningiomas. I’m 1,000% convinced it’s from Chernobyl now.”

In the months leading up to her fortuitous traffic stop, Palmer had begun to be plagued by crippling headaches. They became so intense that they actually kept the avid swimmer out of the water because she was afraid she’d drown if she had one while in the pool.

Three months removed from the surgery that saved her life, she said she’s got a few more angels in her life now. Like the officers who pulled her over. 

“They don’t just write speeding tickets; they save lives, too,” she said. 

And, of course, there’s Vandergrift – fittingly, it sounds like “Wondergift” when she says it. “He is just an amazing human being. I am so lucky to have found him.”