Long Island Rail Road assistant conductor Shantese Wilkinson can see her future clearly.
A year ago she was losing her sight and with it her dreams of being a train conductor. But surgeons with the North Shore LIJ-Health System removed a massive brain tumor that was causing her to go blind, restoring her sight and that dream job.
"When they gave me that certificate and I'm looking at it, I'm like, 'This is real. This is actually happening,' " Wilkinson, 23, said, recalling her recent LIRR graduation. "Everything that's been going on in the past year . . . was definitely worth it once I was able to sit down and look at it and just be like, 'I'm doing this.' "
Wilkinson, an aspiring writer from Central Islip, said she long dreamed of working as a conductor for the LIRR, where she hoped to meet interesting people each day. But the railroad's vision requirements kept the job out of reach. Wilkinson had struggled with eye problems for 10 years and had lost nearly all the vision in her right eye.
"Because I knew that I wouldn't pass the clinical exam, I wouldn't even try," Wilkinson said. "As a conductor, you have to be able to see the signs that are along the track, stop signals. If you can't look out the window of your train and tell the engineer, 'You're clear. Keep going,' you're going to get into an accident."
Weeks before graduating from SUNY Old Westbury in the spring of 2012, Wilkinson saw a specialist with North Shore-LIJ who discovered a massive but benign pituitary tumor pushing against her brain, wrapping around her carotid artery and constricting her right optic nerve.
"I went years without anyone able to tell me what in the world was going on" to cause her vision loss, Wilkinson said. "And they caught it. At that point it was like, 'OK, what's next?' "
The tumor eventually could have killed Wilkinson had it not been identified and removed, doctors said.
Dr. B. Todd Schaeffer, associate chairman of North Shore-LIJ's Department of Otolaryngology and Communicative Disorders, said the "extremely large" tumor could have caused her to suffer a fatal stroke. The vision loss also would have become permanent, he said.
"She was going blind," Schaeffer said. "She would have been completely, irreversibly blind."
Doctors quickly scheduled her for the surgeries to remove the tumor but made no guarantees about whether the vision in her right eye would return.
The first operation took place at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset in June 2012, when Dr. Mark Eisenberg, chief of neurosurgery, worked for more than 10 hours to remove most of the tumor. In January, he removed the rest of the tumor through Wilkinson's nose in a procedure at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park.
After several weeks of recovery, Wilkinson took an eye exam. Vision in her left eye -- her good one -- was 30/40. Her right eye was 20/20.
"Remarkably, her vision essentially became normal," Eisenberg said. "We're really delighted that her life is coming together, where potentially it could have been just completely derailed."
Wilkinson sent her resumé to the LIRR in May and quickly received a response. After two months of exams and three months of training, she graduated to become an assistant conductor on Nov. 26.
"Her perseverance is an inspiration to us all," LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said.
As a new assistant conductor with no seniority, Wilkinson spent Thanksgiving working on the railroad and might also be working on the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
"It's weird to know that a year ago I thought I may never have another holiday again," Wilkinson said. "And now I'm here. And I'm working this hard. I couldn't be more grateful."