ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- A Kenyan teen who underwent surgery at the University of Virginia Medical Center to remove a tumor that was threatening her sight is out of the hospital and recovering.
"Now, I feel like, oh, I'm okay now. I can go to school. I can have friends," said Mercy Nderitu, after a service at the Africa Lighthouse Baptist Temple on Sunday, less than two weeks after the operation.
Nderitu's uncle, Peter Chege, is pastor of the small congregation in Barboursville, comprisIng mostly African immigrants and refugees.
The tumor was causing Mercy's eye to bulge, and she had other symptoms including headaches and nausea. Without surgery, doctors said, she could go blind in both eyes and might even die.
Fortunately, that threat is past, and to Nderitu's relief, the pain has subsided and her eye is no longer bulging.
But the surgery carried big risks of its own, including the possibility that she would lose all vision in the affected eye. At a follow-up visit at UVA last week, Chege says the doctor delivered some disappointing news: the sight in that eye is likely gone for good.
"They came in and told my wife that there has been some damage to the nerve," Chege said.
The acclaimed UVA neuro-opthalmologist Steven Newman performed the surgery and says he had hoped to preserve her vision. He says the procedure was complicated by the size of the growth.
"We were hopeful that we would be able to dissect around the tumor and leave everything else intact,” Newman said. "The problem is there was no way of seeing where the vessels were beforehand because this tumor just essentially filled the orbit."
Nderitu is also currently unable to open the affected eyelid. Newman says it's too early to know if that will be permanent.
"The question is whether or not there's any injury to the muscle, which I can't tell you right now. We'll have to wait and see. Or potentially any injury to the nerve that goes to the muscle, and we'll have to wait and see about that, too,” he said.
Because Newman and the surgical team left a tiny portion of the tumor behind in an effort to preserve her sight, Nderitu will require follow-up visits to ensure it doesn’t grow again. He said even if her vision in that eye is gone, because of her young age, adapting to sight with one eye will be easier for Nderitu than for an older person and should not limit her activities.
Chege says despite the setback, Nderitu is thriving.
"Mercy is jubilant, she is joyful, she is not complaining, she is not feeling sorry for herself,” Chege said. “She's asking when she's going to see again, and she's very excited looking towards the future.”
Nderitu says she's grateful to the doctors and church and community members who have supported her. She also finds comfort in her faith.
"I'm not afraid. I know God shall do,” she said. “I shall see."
Chege says he and Nderitu understood the risk of such a delicate surgery.
"It was either do nothing or do something and something had to be done," he said.
Another challenge for Nderitu is her mother’s absence. Chege says her mother tried to get a travel visa to come to America and help with her daughter’s recovery, but that request was denied at least in part, Chege said, because Nderitu already has family with her, including her grandfather.
Chege and his close friend and fellow pastor, Raye Jones, who has been supporting Nderitu and her family for years, are still trying to raise $35,000 to cover the expense of the surgery and treatment. They have raised about $6,000 and an anonymous donor has offered to match $10,000 when that number is reached.
For information about a GoFundMe to help with Nderitu's surgery costs, click on the link in the Related Links box.
Tax-deductible donations can also be sent to Faith Baptist Church, P.O. Box 6343, Charlottesville, Virginia, 22906. Please reference in check memo “Relief Fund.”