Neurology & Neurosurgery

Optic Nerve Tumor Kicks Off a Surprising Medical Odyssey for Rice University Professor

Aug. 31, 2023

When 62-year-old Rice University business professor Al Danto began experiencing blurry vision, he assumed it was normal eye strain due to grading too many papers. But after cataract surgery failed to correct his vision issues, doctors discovered the real cause: a sizable optic nerve tumor pushing on both frontal lobes of Danto's brain.

The professor's medical journey, which took an unexpected turn after the tumor's removal, was recently featured on the front page of The Houston Chronicle.

Although Danto's tumor was benign, it was extensive and located in a precarious spot, so he was referred to Dr. David Baskin, director of the Kenneth R. Peak Brain & Pituitary Tumor Center at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Dr. Baskin called a brain surgery of such magnitude "high risk." But he added that the most severe cases "are what we do" at Houston Methodist.

Danto was expected to undergo an eight-hour procedure then spend two or three days in the hospital recuperating. It turned out his operation — and journey to recovery — would take far longer.

The operation, which involved using an ultrasound device to shatter the large optic nerve tumor, began promptly at 7:30 a.m. By 5:30 p.m., Dr. Baskin realized he needed another three or four hours to finish up. Since continuing to operate could place undue stress on Danto's body, the team decided to reach a stopping point and schedule a second operation in two weeks.

"We reopened everything up," Dr. Baskin told the Chronicle. "There still was quite a bit of tumor left. We were able to safely divide a big vein in the middle of his head to gain additional access to the tumor. With that gone, it took another hour just to get everything exposed. Then, we got all of the tumor completely out."

Baskin dissected the tumor cleanly off the optic nerve, restoring Danto's vision. The tumor was also reaching down to Danto's pituitary gland and had eroded a portion of the base of the skull, which Baskin was able to then reconstruct.

Although the removal of the optic nerve tumor was a success, another medical event awaited Danto. Shortly after returning home, Danto experienced a severe pulmonary embolism, causing chest pains and shortness of breath. He was rushed back to Houston Methodist Hospital, where his condition deteriorated rapidly. ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) life support became necessary to address his acute heart, kidney and liver failure.

Cardiovascular surgeons removed the embolism, and despite initially being placed on kidney dialysis, Danto's kidneys eventually began functioning well enough to avoid permanent dialysis.

After 65 days in the hospital, Danto was discharged to an inpatient rehabilitation facility. Despite losing a significant amount of weight, strength and stamina, Danto remained determined to return to his classroom. Within several months, he was back in front of his students, teaching a five-hour class.

In recognition of his inspiring journey, Danto was chosen by Rice University alumni to deliver the "Last Lecture" for 2023, a tradition inspired by the late Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist whose final lecture after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis became a popular YouTube video and best-selling book.

Danto's lecture, attended by his medical care team, highlighted the transformative impact of his experience and his newfound appreciation for life and teaching. His message to his audience was to seize life's opportunities and make a difference in the world.

"Impact those around you," Danto said.

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Neurosurgery Ophthalmology