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“It was like having an eye patch on and it came off and now I can see clearly,”

Dr. Carlos David with Essie at the UNC Health Cancer Hospital
Dr. Carlos David with Essie. (Photo: Kurt Nolen, SOC)

Essie is a NCCC nurse at UNC Health working nights to care for critical patients in the NCCC. While driving home from work in October 2023, Essie had unusual difficulty seeing road signs clearly. Aside from reading glasses, Essie had never had trouble with her vision. She made an appointment with her ophthalmologist, assuming that all she needed was a stronger prescription.

Essie spent an extended amount of time at her appointment while her ophthalmologist ran tests. At the end of the exam, she was told that she may have a brain tumor that was affecting her vision, and confirmed that Essie’s peripheral vision was gone. She was told that because of the sudden change in her vision, she was not safe to drive. That day, Essie parked her car and called family for rides.

An MRI was scheduled to confirm the presence of a tumor. The following Monday, an MRI verified the presence of a craniopharyngioma.

A craniopharyngioma is a rare and benign brain tumor that grows near the pituitary gland. The pea-sized pituitary gland located at the base of the brain regulates hormones in the body. Craniopharyngiomas can disrupt normal pituitary function, causing pituitary deficiencies or visual disturbances. For Essie, her tumor was pushing on her optic nerves, causing vision loss.

After her diagnosis, her vision rapidly decreased. Essie was unable to find her cell phone on her kitchen counter without relying on Siri to make the phone light up so she could see it. “I could still move around, but I couldn’t see text messages, MyChart messages, read mail and had to wait for a family member to tell me what things said,” said Essie.

Dr. Brian Thorp with Essie during her follow-up appointment
Dr. Brian Thorp with Essie during her post-op appointment. (Photo: Kurt Nolen, SOC)

Essie got a referral to UNC Health’s Skull Base Center and met with both Dr. Carlos David from Neurosurgery and Dr. Brian Thorp from ENT. The doctors discussed Essie’s case and the best way to safely remove her tumor and preserve her vision. “I was able to see all of the specialists at UNC from Dr. Thorp and Dr. David, to Dr. Harris in endocrinology,” said Essie. “Everything was scheduled on the same day.”

When Essie met with Dr. David, he laid out all of her options for treatment. “Dr. David said that if I did nothing, my vision would continue to go away,” recalled Essie. “He said they could likely remove all of the tumor but if any tumor had to be left behind due to being attached to a critical structure, it would later be treated with radiation. He was very informative, straight forward, and very positive.”

Since Essie’s vision was so blurry, she was unable to see the tumor on the MRI image, but her daughter was able to see it clearlyEssie, brain tumor patient at UNC Health and was able to verify the information as Dr. David explained what the MRI showed.

Essie’s daughter also provided much needed support and rides to appointments. “My daughter was on top of everything,” said Essie.

Essie decided to move forward with the surgery to remove the tumor. “The surgery coordinator called me and scheduled my surgery,” said Essie. “I’m grateful for the coordinator. She gave me all of the information I needed.”

Before her surgery, Essie went in for an appointment with UNC Health neuro ophthalmologist, Dr. Patrick Le. At this point, Essie could hardly see, and her vision now felt like she was trying to see through a blizzard. “Dr. Le said that I probably would not get my vision back,” recalled Essie.

Essie also met with UNC Health endocrinologist, Dr. Elizabeth Harris and completed lab work to check her pituitary gland.

Essie could not work and could not drive. She used her FMLA ,PTO, and shared leave donations form co-workers while she waited for surgery and then for her recovery. “Thankful to my NCCC family for prayers and generosity afforded to me,” said Essie. “I did not feel sick prior to surgery, but my lack of vision took away my independence of things that I would do normally. I just had to wait. It created patience because that was my only option.”

Dr. Carlos David discussing Essie's careOn the morning of her surgery, Essie went in with a prayer that her vision would return after surgery. Her tumor was removed through her nose, a delicate surgical approach that requires a high level of surgical skill from both the ENT surgeon and the neurosurgeon. Dr. Thorp would perform the approach and Dr. David would then remove the tumor, carefully separating the tumor from the optic nerves and pituitary gland.

“Skull base surgery has come a long way and with our modern team approach, bringing the best from several specialties, we can remove these complicated tumors using minimal access approaches while preserving critical structures.”

Essie was impressed with the care she received during her week-long stay in the hospital following her surgery, specifically from the nursing staff. But most importantly, Essie’s vision gradually returned during her recovery period. “In the hospital, every specialist came multiple times throughout the day,” said Essie. “My vision improved greatly by the end of the week.”

By the time Essie was discharged, she could manage her pain with over-the-counter medications. Her daughter drove her home and stayed on top of all of her mother’s follow up appointments and messages so that she could rest and recover. “It is an honor and privilege that we do not take lightly for our team to be trusted with Essie’s care,” said Dr. Thorp.

Essie left her follow-up appointment with Dr. David with a clean scan showing complete tumor removal and preservation of her pituitary gland. “It is so rewarding to help patients like Essie,” said Dr. David. “Skull base surgery has come a long way and with our modern team approach, bringing the best from several specialties, we can remove these complicated tumors using minimal access approaches while preserving critical structures.”

Essie will follow-up with regular scans to make sure that the tumor does not grow back. Dr. Allison Harmel with neuroUNC ENT surgeon Dr. Brian Thorp with Essie ophthalmology also cleared Essie to drive again. “It was like having an eye patch on and it came off and now I can see clearly,” said Essie. “I can drive and work again.”

Essie is happy to be back to work at UNC Health working partial shifts to ease back into her demanding work schedule. She still has more recovery time before she feels back to her normal pace at work and in her personal life. “They tell you that you’ll feel tired and drained, but every day is a better day,” said Essie. “ICU is fast paced. I’m good at what I do and I want to build back up to be back at that level.”

Essie is thankful for her UNC family and friends, and for having the best surgery team, nurses and staff for her surgery. “I’m so thankful to God for my recovery and all those that he put in my path to support me during my diagnosis and treatment,” said Essie. “My daughter put her life on hold to be available and orchestrate things as needed.”

Essie was already proud to be a part of the UNC family and, after this, even more so. Essie said, “I’m just so grateful.”

Dr. Carlos David with Essie after her brain tumor surgery.