ST. PETERSBURG — For Ashlee Gordon, the double vision came and went.
Her doctors had different theories over the years. One thought it was an eye problem. Another suggested it was allergies. Another still said Ashlee was perfectly fine.
But when the 15-year-old from Valrico started seeing black spots, her mother decided to get to the bottom of it.
Last Thursday, mother and daughter went to an optometrist at Brandon Town Center Mall. Dr. Sylvia Bernatsky performed the usual battery of eye exams; everything seemed normal.
But after dilating Ashlee's pupils, Bernatsky became concerned.
Both of the girl's optic nerves were swollen — a red flag.
Bernatsky told Jamie Wilson to take her daughter to St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa immediately. The girl needed an MRI. There was pressure building in her head.
Wilson did as she was told.
• • •
Ashlee had never really complained about the double vision, Wilson thought as she waited in the emergency room with her daughter. It hadn't stopped her from excelling at dance, or taking up acro, a dance style that combines classical techniques with gymnastics.
She was always singing, smiling, performing.
Now, she was sitting in a hospital bed.
The MRI revealed the unimaginable: a tumor the size of a small plum on Ashlee's brain stem. It was growing on her cerebellum, the part of the brain that makes the eyes move together, among other things.
The growth was affecting more than just Ashlee's vision. It was large enough to plug the drainage system in her brain, causing fluid to back up in her skull.
She needed surgery — and urgently.
Two days later, Ashlee traveled by ambulance to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, which has a new Institute for Brain Protection Sciences. On the ride over, she watched Tangled, a movie about the adventures of a feisty young princess.
• • •
The surgery was scheduled for 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.
It was inherently risky. Like other surgeries on the brain, the procedure had the potential to affect Ashlee's speech and vision, and her ability to eat and drink.
Jamie Wilson wondered if her daughter would wake up the same person. She asked for prayers on a Facebook page she created called Ashlee's Journey.
The first priority was to put a drainage tube in Ashlee's brain, said Dr. Gerald Tuite, a pediatric neurosurgeon who performed the procedure with Dr. George Jallo.
"That helped relieve the pressure," Tuite said.
The surgeons made an incision down the back of Ashlee's neck and removed a piece of bone from the back of her skull. They then removed the tumor and replaced the bone.
It took about four hours, Tuite said.
The doctors delivered two pieces of good news to Jamie Wilson that morning.
First: Ashlee had awoken after surgery and wasn't likely to have any long-term problems with swallowing, speaking or her vision.
Also: The tumor was benign.
Wilson shared her joy on Facebook.
"GOD IS SO SO GOOD ALL THE TIME!"
• • •
About 4,600 children will be diagnosed with a brain tumor this year, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. It isn't clear what causes them, or why some kids are more susceptible than others.
The cerebellum is a particularly common spot.
Tuite, the pediatric neurosurgeon, said Ashlee showed grit.
"I've removed tumors in this location from hundreds of kids," he said. "I'd say she is one of the strongest. It's a hard thing to go through. She's always smiling. She always has good attitude."
Ashlee, who is home-schooled, knows she has a long recovery ahead. She'll be in the hospital for at least another week. It could take months for her double vision to go away entirely.
But Ashlee has kept her spirits up.
On Friday — three days after surgery — she sat up in bed and had a conversation with her mom. She wore a pair of fashionable, dark sunglasses to keep the light out of her eyes.
Ashlee asked her mom about attending a dance competition next month. While that was out of the question, her mother assured her she would get back to her favorite pastime again soon.
"We're blessed," her mother said.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.