Carla Hempe, 35, from Eastbourne was in the early stages of her pregnancy last December when she noticed changes in the vision of her right eye. Her GP referred her to the minor eye clinic at Specsavers in Eastbourne who then referred her to the eye clinic at Eastbourne General District Hospital due to concerns over Carla’s peripheral vision.
Further tests were carried out a few days later and, because her eyes were healthy, Carla was also referred for an MRI scan. Eight weeks later, the scan confirmed that she had a mass which was compressing her optic nerve and causing the changes to her vision.
By this stage, Carla’s vision has got so bad that she had lost the visual fields in all of her right and some of her left eye, her central vision was affected and that she also couldn’t differentiate between colours with her right eye.
Carla said: “Pregnancy has always impacted on my vision – it does change every cell in your body – so it didn’t think too much of what was happening at the time. I was surprised when the Specsavers specialist said that they had never seen a reaction like mine to the test before – especially as they said that my actual eye was fine and healthy.
“I no longer felt safe or comfortable doing even simple things which wasn’t easy when looking after three children and when I was pregnant too. It was really frightening how my sight had changed so significantly in a short space of time."
Carla was then officially registered as sight-impaired and she was also soon diagnosed with a suprasellar meningioma which affects both the optic nerve and pituitary gland and its role in hormone regulation.
Despite being 28 weeks pregnant, the best course of action for Carla was to have surgery in the hope of removing as much of the tumour as possible. She also took steroids to try and shrink the tumour and also get her unborn baby’s lungs as strong as they could be should he be born prematurely.
Carla said: “As a mum, our kids always come first in all that we do. But, for the first time, I had to do something for me which could potentially have a negative impact on my unborn son. The medical team regularly monitored his heart rate and there was a cot and incubator ready for him just in case which was so scary.
“I knew I was in good hands though – in fact, I was a bit famous at the hospital because of my unique situation and also because of my tumour type – my neurosurgeon had only seen four cases like mine in his 10 years’ experience.
“The only thing which kept me going through it all was the belief that this was the only way I would be able to see my little boy when he was born. We didn’t know if my vision would come back but we knew that it would only get worse or even be lost completely if we did nothing. I needed to be able to see the faces of all of my beautiful children again.”
The surgery successfully removed most of the non-cancerous tumour and Carla didn’t need any further treatment. She now has regular scans to monitor her condition.
Carla spent nearly two weeks in hospital following her surgery due to concerns about her appetite and also a possible stroke, which was eventually ruled out. Due to the Covid restrictions in place, she was unable to see her children during that time and her husband, who took time off his job as a key worker, looked after the children and visited her once around his parenting commitments.
Following the surgery, Carla’s vision was much clearer but it has once again deteriorated over time but it is not as poor as it was prior to her operation. She hopes that her visual impairment status will be revoked in the future so that she will be able to legally drive again.
Importantly, baby Arthur was born happy and healthy on 18 June at 11.11pm weighing in at 7 pounds and 2 ounces.
Carla said: “After all of my concerns, being able to see my baby Arthur’s face was just amazing. I know how fortunate we both are after all we have both been through together already. Through all of this, I have also found out that my prolactin levels are really high, which could have made me infertile. So he really is our little miracle baby.”
12 weeks on and Carla is busy caring for her four children as well as adjusting to some of the lasting impacts of the surgery. It has caused a minor change to the shape of her skull where the tumour was removed which has impacted on her self-confidence.
Carla is also putting her walking shoes on to raise money for The Brain Tumour Charity by taking part in the Charity’s flagship fundraising event, The Twilight Walk, which is taking place virtually this year due to the pandemic. It asks people to take on the challenge of covering a distance of up to 100km to walk or run throughout October.
She said: “As a mum of four, I don’t have much time or money to give but I knew that I needed to do something to help as this charity and their cause is obviously something which is so close to my heart now. The Brain Tumour Charity have been a great source of information for me, especially when I was first diagnosed and I knew nothing about what it really meant.
“There is, of course, the risk that the tumour could grow back and that I could have more surgery or treatment ahead of me, which means I can’t really draw a line under what has happened. But I do know that it isn’t going to take my life so that I am grateful for.
“I also want to encourage people to get their eyes checked and tested regularly as it can monitor so many aspects of your health which you just wouldn’t think about – I never thought that the changes to my vision could have been because of a brain tumour. We’re all busy and time-poor but I am so glad that I got my vision checked when I did because who knows what could have happened otherwise.”
The Brain Tumour Charity is the world's leading brain tumour charity and the largest dedicated funder of research into brain tumours globally. It aims to find a cure for and support those who are affected by the disease, which is the number one cancer killer amongst children and adults under 40-years-old. The organisation is also aiming to work with the optical industry in order to highlight the importance of having your eyes checked.
Giles Edmonds, Specsavers clinical services director, said: “Regular eye tests are so important as not only can they detect any changes in sight but they can also pick up wider health concerns. If people have missed their appointment during the pandemic, I urge them to rebook. It’s important that people have regular appointments – even if they don’t think anything is wrong – as many conditions are symptomless in the early stages.”
You can donate to Carla's fundraising challenge here.