Medical shocker robs woman of sight and sound judgement

SEATTLE -- When Colleen Gocus looks out over Occidental Park, she can't see the people and landmarks perfectly. But she doesn't need 20/20 vision for clarity. Ten months ago, the streets were her home.

"You feel a lot of shame, not very good about yourself. Like, how did I get to this point?" Colleen said.

Colleen's spiral began in 2011, when her 10-year old son Daniel accidentally suffocated while playing hide and seek.

After his death, Colleen started drinking more, became depressed, dropped out of culinary school and was kicked out of her rental home. Navigating this new life was even more complicated because Colleen was losing her vision.

"I would fall on curbs. I would mostly on steps. I couldn't navigate how high they were," she described.

Colleen gets emotional when she talks about how frightened she was of going blind.

"Remembering what my kids looked like, what my mom looked like, being able to feed myself," she said.

As Colleen's world grew darker, her remaining vision played tricks on her. Sometimes everything looked like it was covered in a paisley pattern. She saw graffiti on buildings that wasn't really there. She reached out to touch snow that didn't exist. In addition to going blind, she wondered about her sanity.

"I really thought I was kind of going crazy," she said. "I was terrified. I was hopeless."

By the time she wound up at Harborview Medical Center, Colleen was completely blind in her left eye and had lost the majority of vision in her right. She was argumentative and unreasonable. UW Medicine doctors Raghu Mudumbai and Laligam Sekhar found a medical shocker. A non-cancerous brain tumor -- the size of a grapefruit -- was pressing on her optic nerves, wiping out Colleen's vision. The tumor was also changing her behavior.

"It grows and compresses both frontal lobes. Frontal lobes are responsible for our judgement, memory, thinking," Dr. Laligam Sekhar said.

Dr. Sekhar removed the tumor in an 8-hour surgery. Colleen woke up in the hospital and for the first time in months, she noticed colors.

"Color was, it was all grey before. Having the color was really neat," she said.

And as Colleen's vision returns, so could her ability to make healthy decisions. Her doctors believe the tumor might have kept her from asking for help when she needed it and that it played a role in choices she made that put her on the streets.

Her vision is still limited, but an MRI shows the tumor isn't growing back. Colleen will have radiation to ensure it doesn't return. Colleen's eyesight is returning, and so is her hope.

Patients like Colleen benefit from Harborview's charity care progame which in 2012 provided $210 million dollars to people who couldn't pay.