By Kimberley Cummins
Caressa Clarke was just a girl who loved life. She loved laughing, hanging with friends, going to the beach, baking, watching Disney movies and her favourite dramatic series Grey’s Anatomy.
Everything was going well for her. At the age of 21 she was pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill campus determined to be a Psychologist.
“I enjoy helping others and giving advice, I also enjoy research. As a teenager I would watch mental health awareness movies and it would move me to see how misunderstood individuals suffering with these illnesses are and sometimes how difficult it is to diagnose or how easy it is to misdiagnose them. I chose Psychology as a means to become someone to make a difference,” she told Barbados TODAY.
Then in 2019, months away from achieving this dream, Caressa’s irregular menstrual cycles began coming with more irregularity and in spite of several efforts, refused to regularise. It took about 15 months before she was diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma.
This is a tumour of the pituitary gland also known as the master gland which is attached to the brain. It is in charge of every hormone in the body, it controls metabolism, reproduction, blood pressure and other vital physical functions and processes.
Her first indication that something was wrong with her body was when the irregular cycle began to be accompanied by sudden and rapid weight gain along with other physical personal changes.
She also experienced persistent mood and attitude changes which she couldn’t control. And after having 20/20 vision for her entire life, her sight began to diminish and she was prescribed spectacles.
With all the changes taking place with her body, Careesa was understandably rife with mixed emotions of confusion and fright. She thought maybe her body was only going through its natural changes and when she gained weight, she figured it was due to her diet at the time. Everything will be fine soon, she would often reassure herself.
After a few months with no improvement, she built up the courage and visited a physician and then another and another. They all reported that her symptoms were due to the irregular menstruation.
“However, due to the increasing changes and negative ultrasounds I was then sent for a blood test and ultimately an MRI performed. . . The results came back on 27th April, 2020 which detected the tumour. I was in denial at first after the diagnosis and then reality set in and I remember randomly bursting into tears because I was scared to have something in my head.
I went into depression and my anxiety increased as well so those were additional things I was dealing with along with the first lockdown and introduction to online classes, everything seemed to happen at once after the diagnosis set in,” Caressa recounted.
In spite of this, the Deighton Griffith Secondary alumna continued to press forward in the hope of achieving her dream but more bad news was around the corner to derail the goal. That is, five months later she would undergo another MRI that highlighted the progression of the tumour.
Depression along with persistent headaches set in. So much so, that even though she knew within herself that she hadn’t come this far at university to throw everything away, the mental toll felt too much for her to bear.
“The feelings associated with the diagnosis showed in a lack of interest in doing assignments or studying, and that was a major change in behaviour for me. I was in my final year, everything was becoming too much to handle. . . I remember telling my family I wanted to drop out of UWI as well because I lost interest and they were all speaking words of encouragement to me, which in all honesty went in one ear and out through the other.
At that point of time, I only continued due to what felt like an obligation. I reached out to my lecturers and Dean who were all understanding and I got an extension on my final research paper along with an extra semester to finish up the degree. After I got approval for the extra semester, I felt like a weight was lifted off me and I was able to realign myself enough to power through and finish up the degree.
During this period was when the 23-year-old learnt that an operation was the only remedy for the growing tumour since medication therapy was unsuccessful in shrinking it. The type of surgery she requires is called a Trans Sphenoidal removal of the pituitary tumour.
It is a minimally invasive surgery where the surgeon enters through the nose and cuts a hole into the skull in order to reach the gland. Caressa revealed that her surgery is urgent due to the continued growth of the tumour. As a consequence, it is compressing the pituitary stalk which has caused it to deviate superiorly.
In addition, her optic chiasm is also compressed and with continued growth of the tumour she is at risk of losing her vision permanently.
Luckily, this week Caressa received the great news that she will receive her operation in Barbados free of cost. She is just awaiting word from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital on the date and she is optimistic that it will be soon. And more good news, after sitting her final exam last December,
She earned her degree with honours and is set to be among the graduates at the university’s virtual graduation ceremony next Saturday, October 23rd. However, she is unable to attend due to some medical issues she has been experiencing.
“Lately, I was in and out of accident and emergency for multiple ailments one of them being photophobia, deteriorating vision where I could only see directly in front of me at a short distance, tremors as well among other things.
“Due to that I was unable to take a graduation photo or pay for it as everything was now going into my prescriptions and tests.
“Nevertheless, I feel pretty good and proud of myself. Going through what I am is very difficult and it became hard for me to continue so accomplishing my degree makes me happy, proud and content,” she said.
The journey for Caressa isn’t yet complete but she is trying to maintain her composure as she awaits her surgery. “I know I can’t go in scared as it is my belief that usually when a person goes in scared, they don’t make it even if it’s a simple procedure because their body wasn’t prepared. God says in Isaiah 41:10 ‘So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand’.”
“I don’t like needles and I know I will have to have two IVs amongst other stuff, I also don’t like the COVID test, it makes me cry and that is something I also have to get before surgery so I am not looking forward to those little things.
I do have some feelings about recovery as I know I will be exhausted, I won’t be able to blow my nose for weeks, I know there will be pain involved with the healing process, there’s a chance the repair may not hold and fluid can leak from my brain out through my nose.
There’s a chance the pituitary may cease working after in which case pills will have to replace the functions of the gland and lastly that I can think of is there is a small chance of still losing some of or all of my sight as the tumour is compressing the optic nerve and it is a very delicate nerve but that is not a big bother for me as I trust my surgeon and I place all my faith and trust in my God.
“So there will be some discomfort and worry associated with recovery as well, but I do look forward to baking again and looking into graduate school and exploring my options. I am still torn between becoming a clinical psychologist, forensic psychologist or counselling psychologist,”
Caressa said excitedly.