A benign cyst near his brain had made standing a challenge; now Ben Gabis races to rise funds for doctor's research

Knowing that his wife and three children were waiting for him at the finish line, Ben Gabis kept running, despite the punishing, upper-90 degree heat that forced many of his fellow competitors in the Chicago Triathlon to walk portions of the race’s final leg.

As he topped a hill and turned a corner onto the last 100 yards of the course, Gabis’ children ran to him, then alongside him, crossing the finish line with their father wearing T-shirts that proclaimed “Papi is back better than ever.”

Gabis, 39, completed the Olympic distance triathlon—a 1.5 kilometer swim in Lake Michigan, 40K bike ride along Lake Shore Drive and 10K run through Grant Park—in a total time of 2 hours, 47 minutes and 34 seconds, placing 577th out of the more than 4,000 people registered for the race.

It would be a remarkable achievement under any circumstances, and it was even more extraordinary given that two years earlier Gabis sometimes had trouble even standing, due to a benign cyst in his skull that was pressing on his brain. I n September of 2008, Gabis underwent surgery to remove the cyst at the skilled hands of Fady Charbel, MD, Res ’93, head of the Illinois Medicine department of neurological surgery.

After making a complete recovery, he decided to celebrate his health by challenging himself with the physical demands of triathlons— and to show gratitude for his treatment by using his races to raise funds for Charbel’s research. “We wanted to have a fundraiser to help others benefit from medical research, recognizing that there are many patients who do not survive brain illnesses or who do not fully recover from brain surgery,” says his wife, Liz Gabis.

Gabis began experiencing symptoms in 2005, which gradually worsened. By 2008, his symptoms had intensified to the point where Gabis was taking a dozen Advil a day for his intense headaches, experiencing severe mood swings and suffering from dizzy spells that would cause him to slip.

Ben and Liz Gabis consulted with doctors at four different hospitals and ended up selecting Charbel, who gave up his lunch hour to meet with them. “He took every bit of the hour and walked me through what was happening, explaining how the chemistry in my body was not right, why I was having these symptoms, rather than just saying, ‘Here’s the solution.’ He was very scientific in his approach,” Gabis remembers. “And it seemed he could do the surgery blindfolded.”

“Once we met with Dr. Charbel, choosing the surgeon became easy. He is in a league of his own,” Liz Gabis adds.

The cyst was pressing against Ben Gabis’ cerebellum, the region at the base of the brain that controls balance and motor function and plays a role in cognitive processing. It’s the most critical part of the brain, and Charbel’s challenge was to remove the cyst while preserving the cerebellum and its functions.

“You always have to be very careful, but with experience, you can do more with less. You can do smaller incisions [that] cause less destruction of tissue,” says Charbel, who estimates he’s performed between 6,000 and 7,000 brain surgeries since he arrived at UIC in 1991.

The surgery was successful, and Gabis quickly saw improvement in his condition—figuratively and literally. “It was like a new life. Living without the headaches was wonderful. My mental abilities are as sharp as ever, and my vision went up three steps,” he says.

Gabis began working with a personal trainer to regain strength, which evolved into endurance training and led to his interest in triathlons. “It seemed like it would be a great way to celebrate health,” he says. “It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m alive and well, and I can do this.’”

Although Gabis had done some running in the past, he’d never gotten past the five-mile mark, and when he started his swim training he ran out of breath after the first three laps. Nonetheless, this past February he committed to taking part in triathlons and began rising at 5:30 in the morning to train before work.

Gabis’ first race was the Galena Triathlon in May. Over the summer, he also completed triathlons in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and Lake Zurich, Ill., plus a half-marathon and several other running races.

He decided to use the races to call attention to his recovery and raise funds in support of Charbel’s work. “I wanted it to have a purpose other than it being about me. The care I was given changed my life, and I’m very appreciative of it,” Gabis says. Since Ben’s first race in May, Liz has been e-mailing friends and family members updates about Gabis’ races, along with appeals for contributions. Their goal had been to raise $5,000, and they ended up with $7,585, including donations from both Ben’s and Liz’s companies.

The funds will provide seed money for Charbel to begin a cutting- edge, early-stage research project and obtain the pilot data needed to apply for greater funding, such as National Institutes of Health grants. “Ben’s made an enormous effort and done it unasked. We very much appreciate it,” Charbel says.

“The triathlons are exciting. When you finish it’s a wonderful feeling—not only physically that you were ready for it—but mentally that you got through it,” Gabis says.

“On Sept. 3, which was two years after my surgery, I thought, ‘Wow, two years ago I was a mess, and this summer I finished four triathlons,’ ” Gabis reflects. “I’m so grateful to be able to do this postsurgery. It’s a remarkable testament to how good Dr. Charbel and his staff are.”