A Lanark woman was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumour, which would have killed her within six months, after visiting her local opticians.
Michelle Crawford, 44, experienced almost no symptoms at all, aside from a slight blurriness in one eye while wearing contact lenses.
The mum-of-two received life-saving treatment to remove the tumour after optometrist and store director of Specsavers in Lanark, Rubena Kerr, referred her to Hairmyres Hospital.
The meningioma grade one tumour, located at the front of Michelle’s brain behind her left eye and thought to be around the size of an orange, was so rare, a number of surgeons and specialists from hospitals across Scotland gathered to observe her surgery and monitor her recovery.
Michelle recalled the events that took place between August and October 2015: ‘It took a few months for me to book an appointment at Specsavers as I didn’t think the blurriness in my eye was anything serious.
‘Rubena was really thorough and helped me try out different contact lenses to see if that would fix the problem.
‘After a few appointments, I happened to mention that the problem was only at the side of my vision in my left eye and that I was also having a problem with things appearing too bright. After conducting a visual fields test, Rubena referred me to Hairmyres.
‘I expected the appointment to be a few weeks later but when I found out I had to go the very next day, I started to worry something serious might be wrong.’
Rubena added: ‘In my over 25-year career as an optician, I have helped to spot a few brain tumours, but I had never before seen a case like Michelle’s.
‘She didn’t have any symptoms often associated with tumours such as headaches or seizures and there was no sign of any abnormalities in the photo of the back of her eye during any of her eye exams.
‘Michelle visited the store in July 2015 for a contact lens check as she had been having trouble with her left eye. It is very common for people to find they have one eye with worse vision when wearing contact lenses so at this point, there was no cause for concern.
‘It was so lucky she mentioned that the problem was with the side of her vision as this prompted me to conduct a visual fields test which isn’t usually performed during a contact lens check.
‘A visual field test checks the visual pathway which is situated between your eyes and your brain. It is checked in many patients and will show up any defect by showing a pattern of missing points. These patterns are then used to help diagnose certain conditions including glaucoma, diabetic changes, and various tumours.
‘The test revealed that half of Michelle’s pattern of points was missing. This is very uncommon and a major indication that something serious may be wrong, therefore I referred Michelle to Hairmyres immediately.’
Michelle underwent various tests at Hairmyres Hospital including a CT scan. She continued: ‘Staff at the hospital explained that I’d be able to go home after the CT scan, however, as soon as it was completed they asked me to wait.
‘Almost immediately after arriving back at the waiting room, a doctor took me to a quiet room. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might have a brain tumour at this point, I actually thought I might have had MS as my mum suffers from the condition.
‘I could see the doctor was visibly shaking as he explained that he’d never seen a tumour like mine with such a lack of symptoms before.
‘Eight weeks after the diagnosis, I underwent surgery for around 15 hours to remove the tumour. Before surgery, it was explained to me that it was very unlikely they’d be able to save my eye as the tumour was so close to it and that I may be unable to walk or speak.
‘I was unconscious for two days following the operation and doctors started to worry that there was an increasing risk I would suffer from some of the side effects they explained to me beforehand.’
Michelle lost the sight in her left eye and suffered from aphasia which left her unable to speak for three days after she regained consciousness as the tumour was next to the part of her brain which controls language. Thankfully, she was able to walk again days after the surgery.
A piece of Michelle’s skull was removed during the operation and was not replaced due to swelling. Ten months later, it was replaced with a metal plate.
Her recovery process also included having to relearn words to build her speech back up and she is yet to undergo surgery to correct drooping to her eye.
Michelle has six-monthly checks to make sure the non-cancerous tumour has not returned. These appointments will become less frequent if the tumour does not reappear.
Michelle added: ‘My consultant was amazed at the progress I made after three months of working very hard to regain my speech.
‘Aside from losing my sight in my left eye and, as a result, being unable to drive for the rest of my life, I have been extremely lucky.
‘I was only the seventh person in South Scotland to undergo brain tumour treatment of this nature in the past three years and the rest either died or had to have their eye completely removed.
‘Losing sight in one eye has been a huge adjustment but I know things could have been very different and I might not have been around to watch my 17 and 15-year-old sons grow up with my husband.
‘I completely believe that some sort of gut instinct told me to get my vision checked out. I was so close to not bothering as it’s easy to put it on the back burner when it didn’t feel like a major problem.
‘I’ve since found out that if I hadn’t had the surgery when I did, it’s very likely my condition would have deteriorated very quickly and I wouldn’t have been well enough for it to go ahead. If that scenario had played out it may have been more about prolonging my life rather than saving it.
‘I am so thankful to Rubena for referring me to the hospital when she did. I never in a million years thought I’d have a brain tumour and I owe my life to her quick thinking.’
Rubena said: ‘Although Michelle’s case was very rare, I can’t urge everyone enough to always ensure you have regular check-ups at an opticians and to make an appointment if anything at all is troubling you, no matter how small you think it is.
‘Make sure you explain any symptoms as clearly as you can as this will help the optometrist to be as thorough as they can.’