Josephine Dambuleff: Seeing Life Clearly Now

Normally when someone has their eyes dilated during an ophthalmology exam, the vision returns within a few hours. But for Josephine Dambuleff, 62, it took nearly five months — and major surgery — to finally see clearly. That's because the impaired vision she experienced turned out not to be caused by eyedrops, but to a ping-pong ball-sized grade 1 suprasellar meningioma.

It took multiple visits to several doctors to ultimately identify the cause of the problem. In July 2018, days after getting the eyedrops from her ophthalmologist during a routine exam, she still could not see well. "Everything was cloudy, and I couldn't read a couple of numbers on the clock," recalls Ms. Dambuleff, a retired public relations manager and educator of disabled people in the restaurant industry who now runs a B&B and vineyard. When a neurologist ordered an MRI, she learned that the tumor may have been quietly growing for a decade.

"It was pressing on the optic nerve, so it was pretty obvious that that was the root of my problem," explains Ms. Dambuleff, a native of England who lives in Frenchtown, New Jersey with her husband, Kyril. "In a way, it was quite a relief to finally find out what was causing this. And I was glad to hear it was benign." The neurologist recommended she find a physician in New York City. A friend who knew someone with a similar problem referred her to Mark Kupersmith, MD, Professor of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Ophthalmology at Icahn School of Medicine and a neuro-ophthalmologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital. "He said it needed to come out straightaway, and he referred me to Dr. Joshua Bederson," she says.

Dr. Bederson — 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 — confirmed that the surgery was necessary. Meeting with Dr. Bederson and Leslie Schlachter, PA-C, Chief Physician Assistant and Clinical Director in the Department of Neurosurgery, Ms. Dambuleff and her husband were able to experience a digital journey through her brain through the department's Virtual Reality Brain Tumor Simulator. "It provided more information than the MRI and was more fascinating than scary," Ms. Dambuleff recalls. "It was so clear — not at all like what you see on TV when a doctor throws up a murky x-ray and points to a vague shadow."

Ms. Schlachter and Dr. Bederson addressed all of her questions. Ms. Dambuleff learned that even with the surgery, there was a risk of blindness in one eye — but it was a risk she was willing to take. "We felt that they were so competent that we could relax in their presence and listen to what they had to say," she says. She was relieved to learn that Dr. Bederson could make the needed 8-inch incision under her hair, where it would not be readily visible. On February 26, 2019, Dr. Bederson entered Ms. Dambuleff's brain through the top of her head and used high-tech imaging to navigate to and remove the tumor.

When she came out of anesthesia, Ms. Dambuleff saw Kyril and Ms. Schlachter and noticed that her vision had improved. She also remembered it was Dr. Bederson's birthday and wished him happy birthday. "My vision was instantaneously better and continued to improve over time once the optic nerve regained its shape," she says. She spent two nights in the hospital and went back home, feeling back to normal two weeks later.

Since then, Ms. Dambuleff has been able to enjoy long walks, logging as much as ten miles at a time and 35 in total each week, including strolls with their fox terrier, Charlie, and bull terrier, Stella. She tends their vineyard and vegetable garden and cares for their chickens. A follow-up exam in December 2019 gave her the all-clear, with no signs of the tumor's return. "Thank you for giving me my life back!" Ms. Dambuleff wrote in a holiday card to Dr. Bederson and his team. "I couldn't be more grateful."

She and Kyril popped open a bottle of champagne on the one-year anniversary of the surgery. The only reminder she has of the operation is the scar she feels when she washes her hair. "This whole thing was so bloody marvelous,” she says. "If this is all I have to live with, that's just fine!"