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Seeing clearly after successful brain tumor treatment

By The Health News Team | June 12, 2024
LaJeanne Garcia of San Diego

After years of caring for others, LaJeanne’s brain tumor diagnosis reminded her to care for herself.

From the time she was a child, LaJeanne Garcia remembers caring for her loved ones. As a twin and the oldest child in her family, the caretaker role always came naturally.

As an adult, LaJeanne became a mom to four children, now ages 29, 22, 18 and 6. She always ensured everyone was dressed, fed and ready for their days. And when her former husband suffered a spinal cord injury, she sprang into action to care for him. All the while, LaJeanne continued to be a top student, working toward her bachelor’s degree in business management.

In 2023, however, things didn’t feel right. LaJeanne had been having headaches but didn’t think much of them. She was a college student who spent lots of time on the computer, after all. But one day, when she rubbed her right eye like she had done hundreds of times before, she realized she couldn’t see out of her left eye.

“In that moment, I realized something was happening with my vision that wasn’t normal,” LaJeanne says. “I went to the ER and pleaded with them to do something. I was terrified to be losing my vision.”

LaJeanne saw two different retina specialists and both prescribed medication that reduced the pressure in her eyes. But her vision continued to worsen. Meanwhile, her twin sister researched everything she could about LaJeanne’s symptoms and eyes.

After being unable to read or see anything except for light for four or five months, LaJeanne scheduled an appointment with Dr. Kimberly Cockerham, a neuro-ophthalmologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. LaJeanne says that was the moment everything changed for the better.

Finally — a diagnosis, treatment and great relief

“Dr. Cockerham looked at me and said she was admitting me to the hospital,” LaJeanne remembers. “She said, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is I know what’s wrong with you. The bad news is you have a brain tumor.’”

Dr. Cockerham assured LaJeanne that she knew an exceptional neurosurgeon and LaJeanne would be in excellent hands with him. “The relief I felt was enormous,” LaJeanne says.

LaJeanne was admitted to the hospital, where she met Dr. Sabareesh Natarajan, a fellowship-trained brain tumor and skull-based neurosurgeon affiliated with Sharp Grossmont and Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center who specializes in treating complex brain tumors

“LaJeanne was completely blind in her left eye and had very minimal vision in the right eye,” says Dr. Natarajan. “All she had was the ability to say if the lights were on or off.”

LaJeanne recalls Dr. Natarajan being very patient and calm with her as he explained what was going on and what he determined to be the cause. A large tumor in her head, he shared, was sitting on her pituitary gland and pushing on both optic nerves.

“He explained how he would remove the tumor with surgery,” LaJeanne says. “I was scared, but I knew I had no control. I needed to lay back, trust the medical experts put in my life, and believe that surgery would get my vision back.”

One particularly meaningful moment deeply moved LaJeanne. It was before surgery, and Dr. Natarajan prayed with her.

“I’m not particularly religious, but I am spiritual,” LaJeanne says. “It meant so much for Dr. Natarajan to pray with me. I felt completely calm after and ready for surgery.”

The surgery, done using computerized navigation in a state-of-the-art surgical suite with advanced technology, took eight hours. Dr. Natarajan meticulously operated around critical structures of the brain to remove the tumor and relieve the pressure from her eyes.

She can see clearly now

Upon waking up, LaJeanne says she didn’t see the fog or flashes of light that had plagued her vision. She didn’t know which eye was working — or if both were — but she knew she could finally see better. She cried tears of joy and relief.

“Given the success of the surgery, LaJeanne’s vision improved over the next few days following surgery,” says Dr. Natarajan. “She is delighted that she can now read and see her children again.”

As LaJeanne continues her journey of recovering from brain surgery, she says she’s been on a different kind of journey: A journey of acceptance.

“I’ve been the caregiver all my life but having brain surgery required me to put LaJeanne first,” LaJeanne says. “That’s been hard for me. I want to go back to normal — my normal. I want to graduate college, I want to go back to work, and I want to be a shining light in this world.”

And when it comes to other people experiencing a similar diagnosis or challenging time, LaJeanne encourages them to think about the choices they have every day. “We choose to be happy; we choose to advance in life,” she says. “It’s up to us to choose anything we want.”

While LaJeanne admits there were times she wanted to give up, she chose not to. “That choice reminds me to get up and that tomorrow is a new day,” she says.

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