CLEVELAND — 3News Senior Health Correspondent Monica Robins said "See ya later" to viewers last November. This would be her second medical leave for the brain tumor that has changed her life since the July of 2019.
That is when doctors diagnosed the veteran reporter with a sphenoid wing orbital meningioma. The tumor was in her skull, growing near her carotid artery and her optic nerve. In October of that year, Cleveland Clinic surgeons removed as much of the tumor as they could, hoping that it would be benign, and also that it wouldn't grow back.
The tumor was, in fact, benign. But when it comes to brain tumors, location is everything, and even non-cancerous tumors can be deadly. The first surgery had to leave behind residual tumor on Monica's optic nerve — the back of her left eye and eye socket, sitting 3 millimeters from her carotid artery.
Every six months, Monica received an MRI to make sure the tumor residual tumor wasn't growing. She resumed work, returning to WKYC Studios not long before the pandemic arrived and all our lives turned upside down.
As Northeast Ohio's preeminent medical correspondent, Monica threw herself into covering this unprecedented event. Her longtime "Facts not fear" approach to reporting set the tone for 3News' coverage of COVID-19 since March of 2020.
Throughout the pandemic, Monica continued to have her MRIs, but the discomfort in her eye soon returned. In 2021, a scan revealed the tumor did spread from her eye socket into her cavernous sinus, where her carotid artery is also located.
She became a candidate for TONES surgery, or transorbital neuroendoscopic surgery. This time, surgeons would go into Monica's eye lid to attack the tumor. If necessary, they would need to remove a portion of Monica's rib to be used for facial reconstruction.
That was Dec.13, 2021. We sat down with Monica a few days before her scheduled return to work. She has shared bits and pieces of her recovery on social media. During our interview, Monica opened up about the surgery, the very difficult time she had during recovery, and how this time has to be different.
"I mean, I knew I was going into surgery, and didn't really know what was going to happen this time," she recalled. "So there was a lot of anxiety, and then I just gave it up to God and said, 'Do what you gotta do!'
"Dec. 13. Monday. I just remember having to get up really early in the morning. I wasn't thinking about the surgery as much as I needed to get there on time. They took me back around 8:30 and put me in a pre-op room. I sat in there for another three hours before they rolled me back."
Monica's surgery lasted for five hours. Her team included Dr. Pablo Recinos, who is part of the Cleveland Clinic's Brain Tumor and Neuro-Oncology Center. Recinos performed Monica's first surgery and has been a constant source of encouragement during this entire journey. This time, Dr. Dane Genther — facial plastic and reconstruction surgeon — was part of Monica's team, too, and would take over once Recinos' portion of the surgery was complete.
"Luckiest girl alive," Monica told us. "The tumor was about a centimeter behind my brow bone, so they didn't need to take out the bone in my face and they didn't need me to give up a rib to rebuild my face.
"So when I woke up in recovery, [my husband] Deke was sitting there, and that was the first thing he said. He said everything went really well, didn't need to take my rib, and it was like, you know, just like this big relief that I wasn't gonna have to go through a ton more."
Monica's hospital stay was shorter this time. She began her recovery at home, but unlike her first surgery before the pandemic, she couldn't receive any visitors. The wound in her eyelid made the risk of infection greater, and aside from her husband Deke, Monica would be isolated from friends and family.
"When I got home, you know, the pain set in. But was one of those things where went to bed, woke up the next day and it was like, I got out of bed and made it to the couch and pretty much like laid on the couch for 18 hours, you know, feeling like I was in the worst bar fight ever and looking like it too.
"The first week of recovery was fine. I knew my eye was gonna get pretty nasty, and it did. The issue was the tumor had been pushing my eye out of my head when my eyelid couldn't close all the way. The dry eye got significantly worse and way more serious, and all of a sudden it felt like just knives or just sticking in my eye.
"Then I would get these like throbbing, ridiculous headaches. You know, I have a really high tolerance for pain. That was insane. It affected everything. It affected my mood. I went down the rabbit hole. Hard, and I think a lot of it was because I could not manage it.
"There was nothing I could do. I had a real hard time getting out, you know? I kept trying to say, 'Suck it up, Monica, and deal,' and I just couldn't. I couldn't.
"I'm not as strong as everybody seems to think I am, and that's okay. I didn't have a choice. This is what I was given, this is what I gotta deal with."
Monica's emotional and physical struggles persisted. She became more isolated from the outside world. Finally one day, on impulse, she grabbed her coat and hit the door:
"When the temperature got really cold — I remember I think it was 17 degrees — but I bundled up and I hit the door and I went for a walk. Didn't realize I was gonna walk five miles, [but] when I got home, it was like ... my head opened up.
"I was physically tired, not mentally tired, and that was the door to get out of the rabbit hole. I'm taking my life back in whatever way I possibly can. It's my life; I want it back.
I'm going to do what I have to do though this time, as much as I possibly can, to do it right, and make my well-being a priority in that life, 'cause it might save it."
More from Monica's story:
- 'I'm looking forward to getting back and being productive': 3News' Monica Robins to return to work later this week
- Monica Robins: "There's a lesson here: You don't know what anybody's dealing with"
- An important meeting before Monica Robins' next brain surgery
- 'I am grateful for all of you': 3News' Monica Robins announces she will again undergo surgery to remove brain tumor