Native Yorker battles brain tumor to sing again
Zachary Zortman loves to sing.
He’ll sing tunes created with his former bandmates and serenade friends with the best of Billy Joel. Family members describe an energy and charisma about him that cheers up anyone in the room the 29-year-old longtime Yorker walks into.
However, a drastic life change a few months ago took away the York Catholic grad’s ability to form full sentences for a while, let alone sing.
It started with a headache: Several months ago, Zortman moved to Chester County with his girlfriend to start working as a school guidance counselor after finishing graduate school.
“The first one I took as a brain freeze,” Zortman said. “The second one I reported to my parents and girlfriend. We said if it happened again we’d go to the hospital.”
And then it did.
While driving home one day, Zortman had a seizure, blacking out behind the wheel for a few seconds. He went to the emergency room Sept. 23 at Chester Hospital, where a CT scan revealed a brain tumor, and he was immediately rushed to Penn Medicine in Philadelphia.
“At that point it was kind of agonizing,” he said. “You know something is up, but you don’t know what. That’s where it was frustrating. They came in and said they’d have to do surgery, but they didn’t know what kind of tumor.”
A week later, Zortman was diagnosed with a tumor in his frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls language, comprehension and expressive speech, and he was told he’d need surgery.
Awake for brain surgery: At Penn Medicine, neurosurgeons performed an awake craniotomy Sept. 30 to remove 99 percent of the tumor. The surgery required him to do exactly what the name implies — stay awake while surgeons went in through his skull in an attempt to remove the tumor. Doctors tested his speech and motor functions throughout the six-hour procedure.
The surgeon’s choice for testing those functions?
“They had me sing,” Zortman said.
Zortman spent October in speech therapy and has prepared to have the other 1 percent of the tumor treated. This month he’ll start proton therapy, a highly targeted form of radiation that delivers precise doses of radiation while minimizing exposure to the surrounding tissue, according to Penn Medicine.
Without the warning signs, he said, he isn’t sure if we would have sought treatment for the condition or even known that it existed.
“I feel very grateful for being able to have some kind of sign come down and let me know I had something going on, that I was able to address it,” he said. “What happens with a lot of people is that they don’t know they have something dangerous inside of them.”
Community rallies: Zortman’s older brother Jesse Zortman, 34, has played a big role in rallying the community behind the younger Zortman. He has organized two benefits — at Liquid Hero Brewery and White Rose Bar & Grill — and started a GoFundMe campaign to cover the cost of speech therapy, follow-up care and living expenses while Zack Zortman is unable to work.
According to information on the GoFundMe page, physicians said Zack Zortman is battling a Grade 3 anaplastic glioma that requires monthly neurological follow-ups, radiation and chemotherapy now that the tumor has been successfully removed. The page also says it will be several months until he is able to return to work.
“When everyone heard Zack had just moved out there and two months later all this happens — that’s been very difficult,” Jesse Zortman said. “Every conversation you have with people comes back to that. It’s been a major adjustment for all of us here.”
A goal of $15,000 was set on the GoFundMe page, and as of Thursday evening, 161 donors had given $12,210 toward that mark.
While recovery and future treatment has been hard for Zortman’s family and friends, Jesse Zortman said it’s harder for Zack, but he wouldn’t let you know it. A year ago, Jesse Zortman said his brother was winning the 2015 YorVoice competition at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center with his former band, The Akt.
At the recent benefits, the group got to perform together again.
“When he came out of surgery he couldn’t speak in full sentences,” Jesse Zortman said. “Now he’s singing again.
"It’s just not what we expected from someone with such a musical career. It seems bad things happen to good people.”
However, if there’s one good thing that’s come out of the experience, it’s that it has brought the brothers closer together, said Jesse Zortman. The brothers drifted apart while pursuing similar degrees on opposite sides of the commonwealth. Zack Zortman’s high spirits also have helped the rest of the family cope. In January, Zack Zortman said, he’s releasing a single to help others undergoing treatment for brain cancer.
“I don’t get that (negativity) at all,” Zack Zortman said. “I know I have a battle on my hands, but I believe I can beat it.”
Watch Zack Zortman perform here.