Roberta Benzilio: Filled with Gratitude

Roberta Benzilio was just a week shy of retiring from her position as an executive vice president at a major New York City real estate company in January 2019 when she woke up with an excruciating headache. "I thought it was just a migraine, but it turned out to be the headache of a lifetime," recalls Ms. Benzilio, 66. She was also vomiting. Worried about a possible brain aneurysm, her doctor recommended she go to the emergency room. Hours later, CT and MRI scans revealed that she had a lesion in the left side of her brain — a golf ball-sized tumor in her occipital lobe, which receives input from the eye’s retina to interpret color, shape, and distance.

The doctors at that hospital said the tumor looked like a benign meningioma, but that because of its location — impinging on the sagittal sinus and blood vessel — they were worried it raised her risk of a stroke or seizure. They recommended it be surgically removed. That's when Ms. Benzilio started doing her research.

Through online searches and discussions with friends and colleagues, she consulted with five neurosurgeons. A pediatric neurosurgeon who knew one of her friends referred her to Joshua B. Bederson, MD, the Leonard I. Malis, MD/Corinne and Joseph Graber Professor of Neurosurgery and Chair of the Department of Neurosurgery for the Mount Sinai Health System, who had vast experience in this surgery. "I had been reading about him online, and I knew before I met him that I would like him," Ms. Benzilio explains. And she did like him, as well as Leslie Schlachter, PA-C, Chief Physician Assistant and Clinical Director in the Department of Neurosurgery, who coordinates each patient's care.

"Dr. Bederson isn't an alarmist, and Leslie is so great with patients," Ms. Benzilio adds. "She answered every question, and I had about 30 of them. She's very accessible and easy to get along with, and I like that we're both no-nonsense people."

Key to understanding her tumor and the planned operation was the department's Virtual Reality (VR) Brain Tumor Simulator. Wearing special VR glasses and guided by Ms. Schlachter, Ms. Benzilio was able to take a digital tour through her brain. "It was fabulous and fascinating, and it would have been even more fascinating if it wasn't my own brain," she says. "However, it was comforting to know what was going on and what the procedure would be like. Afterward, I wasn't as nervous as I would have been without the virtual reality description."

She wanted a few more weeks to enjoy her birthday and scheduled the procedure for March 28, 2019, at The Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Bederson told her that he was not sure if he could remove all of the tumor tissue or if she would need radiation therapy after surgery, but he would soon find out. After seven hours in the operating room, he was able to remove the grade 1 meningioma, and Ms. Benzilio needed no additional treatment.

When she woke up from the surgery, the first person she saw was Ms. Schlachter, and then her husband, Bob, who was by her side from the day she learned she had a tumor. "I was worried I would lose feeling in my right hand and leg, but I was able to wiggle my fingers and toes when I woke up," she says. She was also afraid that after the surgery, she might not feel like her old self. "But as soon as I started talking, I knew I was fine," Ms. Benzilio adds.

It took a few months for her to feel totally like herself again, but the "headache of a lifetime" never returned. The incision is nowhere to be seen because Dr. Bederson was able to make it under her hair. A year after the surgery, she sometimes has difficulty multitasking and processing details (which is not uncommon after a surgery like hers), but her energy has returned and she does brain puzzles and games to exercise her thinking abilities.

She officially retired in June 2019 and now works as a consultant. The following October, Ms. Benzilio enjoyed ten days in Italy with Bob — a gift he gave her to celebrate her recovery. She's also back to playing guitar, doing Pilates, and working full-time as president of Walk With Us NYC, a charity she and a friend co-founded in 2017 to provide new shoes and socks to homeless children, women, and men in New York City.

Ms. Benzilio and her husband enjoy their time together living in lower Manhattan with their parrot, Teka. "As horrible as it was to hear the words 'you have a brain tumor,' I don't think it could have gone any better," she concludes. "Dr. Bederson, Leslie, and their team made a horrible situation the best it could be. I am so grateful to all of them."