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Neurosurgery Restores Lost Vision and Sense of Smell

After surgery to remove a brain tumor, a grateful Joe Robben returns to normal life

Joe and Gail RobbenFor the past decade, Joe Robben has been busy running his two insurance businesses in Victoria, Kansas, located in central Kansas not far from Hays. When not working, he and his wife, Gail, enjoy spending time with their three grown children, two of whom live out of state. Life was humming along when, in 2016, Joe noticed he was losing his sense of smell. He didn’t think much of it. Later that same year, the vision in his left eye became blurry, but he still was not particularly worried. 

“When you’re 53, some things begin to change, right? I just assumed aging was the reason for these symptoms,” explains Joe. 

Early in 2017, Joe made an appointment with his optometrist in Hays, Kansas. She was concerned he might have a cataract in his left eye and scheduled a procedure to remove it. Joe’s vision did not improve, so he was referred to a retina specialist in Wichita. The specialist asked Joe whether he’d had dizzy spells or headaches. He’d had neither. 

When his exam didn’t identify a problem, Joe was referred again, this time to a neuro-ophthalmologist in Wichita. She, too, asked about dizzy spells and headaches. Once again Joe said he had experienced neither. When he mentioned losing his sense of smell, the doctor ordered an MRI. The symptom introduced the possibility of meningioma – a benign tumor that grows out of the meninges, the tissue that lines the brain and spine. 

The MRI indeed revealed a meningioma. Its location had caused Joe to lose his sense of smell. It also was pushing on the optic nerve, causing blurred vision. Of greatest concern was the pressure it was putting on the lining of the brain, causing swelling. That warranted Joe’s immediate admission to an ICU in nearby Wichita. 

There, a neurosurgeon reviewed Joe’s MRI and concluded the tumor was larger than he was comfortable removing himself. He referred Joe to the neurosurgical specialists at The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City.

Creating a plan for removing the tumor

In June 2017, Joe and Gail made the 4-hour drive to Kansas City, Kansas, and met with neurosurgeon Paul Camarata, MD. Dr. Camarata explained the situation to Joe in great detail, describing the surgery he needed and sharing what Joe could expect afterward. 

After the appointment, as Joe and his wife made the trip back to Victoria, they discussed what they had learned. “I was scared,” shares Joe. “I had just heard it was possible I might have to relearn how to walk and talk after the surgery. My wife and I prayed a lot about this, and we realized how much confidence we had in Dr. Camarata, so we scheduled the surgery, giving ourselves enough time first to get things in order. We felt like we had to plan for any outcome.” 

Two weeks later, Joe and Gail arrived at the health system for the surgery to remove the tumor. 

“Before the surgery, Dr. Camarata and his entire team came to see me. They all introduced themselves to me and told me what they’d be doing for me. It made me feel more confident,” says Joe. 

What was expected to be a 6-hour surgery turned into more than 12 hours. The tumor was attached to Joe’s brain and resting right on his optical nerve. After the skull was opened, it was a delicate process to extract every bit of tumor tissue. 

According to Joe, “Dr. Camarata and his team knew they had my life in their hands, and they were determined to do the job correctly the first time, no matter how long it took. I get emotional every time I think about it.” 

After surgery, while still in the hospital, Joe participated in various types of therapy to evaluate his memory, speech and motor skills. All were affected to some degree, but not as significantly as they could have been. He was given exercises, particularly for memory, to practice at home, and released just 4 days after his surgery. 

“In Joe’s case, the tumor was so large, I’d estimate it had been growing for 30 years,” Dr. Camarata says. “We have every hope it will not return. If it does, however, we can control it with radiation. I’ll follow up with Joe annually for 5 years and less frequently after that to make sure the tumor does not return.”

A steady recovery

Joe’s recovery took a full year. He had been told not to expect his speech, memory or motor skills to be back to normal right away. Three months after surgery, Joe looked out the window of his house and realized he could see individual leaves on trees. He was encouraged by this major improvement. 

“Each month I could do something else better,” says Joe. “If I couldn’t think of a word, my wife didn’t help me by filling it in. She made me do it myself, which helped. It all came back over time.” 

His ability to work came back over time as well. Several weeks after surgery, Joe began going to the office for 30-60 minutes a day. Today he can put in nearly full days, though he still is aware when his brain gets tired from working hard. That’s how he knows it’s time to call it a day. 

Best of all, Joe says his personality has changed for the better. 

“Before the surgery, I had become frustrated and I lacked patience. It showed in my relationships more than I even realized. Today my wife and kids tell me I am so much more relaxed and calm. It was an outcome I didn’t plan for, but appreciate every day.”

The future looks bright

Recently Joe had his 12-month MRI. It showed no sign of the tumor. He also had an eye exam. He has 20/20 vision again in his left eye, which was 20/100 at the time of surgery. But today, the only correction Joe needs is reading glasses. 

According to Joe, “Finding this tumor was a real blessing. If we hadn’t found it, I might not be here today. I’m especially grateful to have found Dr. Camarata and the others at The University of Kansas Health System. I wish I could thank them all personally.”