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    Tumor fails to dim mission zeal

    A Honduran student, nearly blind after brain surgery, goes home Thursday with a new love for life.

    [Times photo: Cherie Diez]
    Oscar Cantillano waits for his coffee to cool Monday while his SPJC classmates shoot pool. Before his operations and the loss of his sight, he shot pool with them during class breaks.

    By MIKE SAEWITZ

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


    Shortly after Oscar Cantillano came to the United States last year, a sharp pain pierced the back of his head. The next morning, his whole world was pounding. His eye. His forehead. Tylenol provided only temporary relief.

    For nearly three months, "there were very few moments I was not in pain," said Cantillano, 30. He cried when the doctor confirmed his worst fears, that he had a brain tumor. He cries today when he thinks about that day.

    photo
    Cantillano in August 2000 before he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
    After three brain surgeries, the pain is gone. But the Honduras native, once a "strapping young man," according to teachers, struggles to see, walk and write.

    Cantillano came to this country to study at St. Petersburg Junior College and learn to help people in Honduras overcome infectious disease. Instead, he got a lesson in caring for his own health.

    The tumor forced him to abandon his studies. But he will go home to Honduras on Thursday with a new compassion and love for life -- qualities he believes can help a person overcome any of life's hardships.

    "I am going to get better, and I am going to go back and help people," said Cantillano, seated on a couch in his first-floor apartment.

    Cantillano talks out of the right side of his mouth -- the left side of his face has been paralyzed since the surgery.

    A pink scar over his ear forms an upside down L-shape in his thin black hair. He gently untucks his T-shirt to reveal a small red scar just above his waistline -- the scar marks the end of a tube doctors say they started near his brain to drain fluid.

    The scars are new to Cantillano, who had only "normal" headaches when he lived in Santa Barbara, Honduras. Married with a 7-year-old daughter, Cantillano loved his work: educating Hondurans about disease and fighting cholera in the countryside.

    But he jumped at the chance to get one of 20 scholarships to attend a one-year training program at St. Petersburg Junior College that began in August. The scholarships were for Central American and Caribbean rural health promoters.

    Doctors dismissed his October headaches as sinus or stress-induced, said Jan Ballantine, acting coordinator of International Education at SPJC's Health Education Center.

    Migraine medication didn't lessen the pain. And Cantillano's vision soon "got real blurry" when he stood up, he said.

    Just days before he took an MRI, Cantillano suspected he had "something big," said teacher Joe Wood. "I think . . . tumor . . . in my head," Cantillano wrote, Wood said.

    Doctors found a 6- to 7-centimeter slow-growing benign tumor on his acoustic nerve, said Dr. Thomas Stengel of Neurosurgical Associates of Tampa Bay Inc., and the tumor was pushing on Cantillano's brain stem. His first surgery, which lasted 14 hours, was Dec. 28.

    "His (tumor) was the biggest one I've ever seen," Stengel said. "It eventually would have killed him."

    Had Cantillano seen a good doctor in Honduras, Stengel said, a much smaller tumor would have been detected a long time ago.

    After a second 14-hour surgery Jan. 11, 95 percent of the tumor was gone, Stengel said. A third surgery placed the tube, a shunt, to move pressure-causing fluid in the brain to absorb in the abdomen. His left eye was stitched half-shut to prevent irritation.

    Doctors are unsure whether he will regain the use of the left side of his face or why Cantillano sees people as colorless silhouettes and shadows.

    "I don't think his vision will ever return to normal," said Dr. Frank Mendelblatt, Cantillano's ophthalmologist.

    After Cantillano left the hospital Feb. 5, classmates fed him and cheered him up. Soon, he asked to ride the bus to class at SPJC.

    Cantillano started taking baby steps only three weeks after leaving the hospital. Wood, his teacher, said seeing Cantillano's positive attitude was "a huge blessing to me."

    "This man's got a will to live, a ganas de vivir," said Ballantine, who will accompany Cantillano back to Honduras.

    Doctors are concerned about Cantillano's care in Honduras. Cantillano used up his $250,000 insurance in America, and he is unable to pay for therapy and medicine in Honduras. To help, the Oscar M. Cantillano Trust Fund has been established at the First National Bank of Florida. Contributions can be made at any branch.

    The drive behind Cantillano's inspired recovery, he said, was the promise he'd soon see his daughter. She'll be waiting for him at the airport on Thursday.

    "I love my family much more now," Cantillano said. "I want to be close to them."

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