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updated: 7/24/2014 3:06 PM

Mundelein teen gets second chance at play after surgery to remove brain tumor

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  • Video: Back on stage after tumor

  • Monica Tipperreiter talks with her fellow actors before a rehearsal for her dream role in the musical "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School. Monica was set to star in the production in the spring before the discovery of a brain tumor. The school is restaging the production for a one-time encore performance Friday.

       Monica Tipperreiter talks with her fellow actors before a rehearsal for her dream role in the musical "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School. Monica was set to star in the production in the spring before the discovery of a brain tumor. The school is restaging the production for a one-time encore performance Friday.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Monica Tipperreiter, right, warms up with her fellow actors during a final rehearsal for Friday's production of "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School. Monica was set to star in the production in April before a health scare intervened.

       Monica Tipperreiter, right, warms up with her fellow actors during a final rehearsal for Friday's production of "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School. Monica was set to star in the production in April before a health scare intervened.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Monica Tipperreiter talks with director Jonathan Meier during a rehearsal for her dream role in the musical "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School. Monica was set to star in the production in April before a health scare intervened.

       Monica Tipperreiter talks with director Jonathan Meier during a rehearsal for her dream role in the musical "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School. Monica was set to star in the production in April before a health scare intervened.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Josie Davis, left, and Monica Tipperreiter take a break from rehearsing for Friday's encore performance of "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School. Monica was set to star in the role of Lilly this spring but those plans were scuttled when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

       Josie Davis, left, and Monica Tipperreiter take a break from rehearsing for Friday's encore performance of "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School. Monica was set to star in the role of Lilly this spring but those plans were scuttled when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Monica Tipperreiter speaks with castmates before a rehearsal for her dream role in the musical "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School. Monica was set to star in the production in the spring before the discovery of a brain tumor. The school is restaging the production for a one-time encore performance Friday.

       Monica Tipperreiter speaks with castmates before a rehearsal for her dream role in the musical "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School. Monica was set to star in the production in the spring before the discovery of a brain tumor. The school is restaging the production for a one-time encore performance Friday.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Monica Tipperreiter shares a laugh with castmates fellow actors before a rehearsal of the "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School Wednesday. Monica was set to star in the school's spring production before the discovery of a brain tumor. The school is restaging the production for a one-time encore performance Friday.

       Monica Tipperreiter shares a laugh with castmates fellow actors before a rehearsal of the "The Secret Garden" at Mundelein High School Wednesday. Monica was set to star in the school's spring production before the discovery of a brain tumor. The school is restaging the production for a one-time encore performance Friday.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • A brain tumor dashed Monica Tipperreiter's hopes to perform in Mundelein High School's spring production of the musical "The Secret Garden," but thanks to the efforts of the school's theater department and classmates she'll get another chance Friday night. Monica and the cast went through a final rehearsal Wednesday.

       A brain tumor dashed Monica Tipperreiter's hopes to perform in Mundelein High School's spring production of the musical "The Secret Garden," but thanks to the efforts of the school's theater department and classmates she'll get another chance Friday night. Monica and the cast went through a final rehearsal Wednesday.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
 

When "The Secret Garden" was announced as the spring musical at Mundelein High School, senior Monica Tipperreiter reacted quickly and completely.

The part of Lily -- a ghost who barely speaks but has soaring solos -- would be a challenging test of her soprano vocal skill, and a chance for Monica to snare her first lead role in the four years she had been involved in theater at the school.

"I bought the album on iTunes and listened to it over and over again, and I bought a book with the songs in it and started practicing with my voice coach," she said.

So it went for more than seven months, as Monica steadfastly pursued what she regarded as the opportunity of a young lifetime. But at the last minute, after all the preparation and anticipation, a brain tumor that had been slowly growing in Monica all her life derailed her hopes.

"She wanted to be Lily more than anything else," said Cory Thompson, vocal director of "The Secret Garden" and choral director at MHS.

And at 7 p.m. Friday, through a remarkable show of support, Monica will get that chance during a special encore presentation at Mundelein High School.

"They all thought she was a little crazy," Monica's mom, Debbie, said of her daughter's intense interest in the part of Lily. "This really is why they're doing what they're doing."

Immediately after "The Secret Garden" was chosen as the spring production, Monica immersed herself in the classic story of an orphaned 11-year-old girl by researching the production online and watching YouTube videos.

That was last September. The auditions weren't until February.

And by that time Monica was as prepared as anyone could possibly be, even though there were months to wait before the shows.

"Singing those songs every single day for five months -- she had never wanted anything as bad as she wanted this part," Debbie Tipperreiter said.

But just a week before opening night in April, Monica's passion for the role was silenced by an indescribable medical scare.

Doctors discovered a golf ball-sized tumor in her brain. The tumor was surgically removed and diagnosed as benign in a 24-hour blur, but Monica's hopes for performing in "The Secret Garden" were dashed.

Or so she thought.

The sequence of events led to an immediate vow by those involved in the production to give Monica a second chance at her senior dream.

"She was just heartbroken," Thompson said. "She wanted this part so long. She really had taken it so seriously and we really wanted to do this for her and her family."

The production Friday will be a staged concert-style, with no set or costumes. Most of the original cast of about 35 will be back, according to Jonathan Meier, director of theater.

"Pulling this thing back together has been a challenge but we're glad to do it," he said.

"I'm just thrilled that it's all coming together so she gets this opportunity," Thompson said. "It means a lot to all of us."

Tickets will be available at the door, 1350 W. Hawley St. Admission is a donation of any amount, with proceeds going to the school theater department and the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital.

The excitement with which the production is being anticipated is of the same measure as the anxiety and fear felt by all concerned during those jarring couple of days in April.

About two weeks before opening night, Monica said she felt peculiar while putting up posters for the show.

"Something was wrong with my eyes. Everything was different. I didn't know why," she said. After a few days, she began seeing double when she looked down, and on a Friday during rehearsal she had trouble navigating the staircase.

"At first I blamed it on being tired," she said. But when it didn't go away, she thought something was wrong with her vision.

The next day, an optometrist did a full exam and found no problems, Debbie Tipperreiter said. "I just knew double vision was not good. I said, `I'm not happy with that'," assessment, she said.

On Monday, they saw a pediatrician, who also reported Monica was fine. An ophthalmologist concurred two days later, but ordered an MRI for the next day.

The scare began in earnest on Thursday as the cast prepared to sing live with the orchestra for the first time.

"(Monica) sent me an email and said, `I think I'll be a little late. I had the MRI but they're making us wait for the results'," Thompson said. "The next thing I knew, she said, `They found something on my scan and I have to go to the hospital.'"

Monica said they called her mother into the backroom. They were told not to go home.

"I was mostly just shocked," Monica said. "I didn't know what to think of it."

A second MRI lasting 2 hours followed Thursday night. Doctors said they could tell nothing had spread to her spine, but couldn't determine if the tumor was a benign or cancerous mass. They wouldn't know until it was removed.

In the meantime, word had spread among the theater crowd.

"I was shaking and crying," Thompson said. "How can this be possible? She was going to be the lead in the show. She was going to prom the next night."

After seven hours of surgery Friday, the mass was determined to be a benign epidermoid that was entwined in her fourth optic nerve. It had been growing since birth, according to Debbie Tipperreiter.

"Literally one of her skin cells was floating around, got stuck in her skull and began to grow. Less than 1 percent of all tumors are this type of tumor," she said.

In the emergency room on Thursday night, Monica said she had a good feeling.

"I was like, `Mom, it's OK. It's going to be fine,' "

And after?

"I was obviously happy it wasn't cancer, but I didn't want to miss the show."

She was hospitalized for 10 days and returned home May 3. That night, wearing an eye patch, she stopped backstage to say hello to her castmates before the show.

"It was awkward, actually. Nobody knew how to act around me," said Monica, who turned 18 last week.

Even then, she was intent on a comeback.

"After surgery, when I would sing, because they moved stuff around in my head, it would sound really different," she said. "After six weeks it was pretty much back to normal and then I started practicing again."

Because of stress on the optic nerve during surgery, Monica still sees double when she looks down. But doctors think it will heal in time.

She plans on studying speech and hearing sciences at the University of Iowa and would like to help people who need speech therapy after surgery. She'll likely join the choir on campus, but at this point doesn't plan on auditioning for any productions.

Friday's performance is the immediate focus. Lily has only four lines in the show, but because Monica enjoys singing more than acting, she considers it a perfect part for her talents.

"I'm very grateful for the second chance," she said.

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