Every night, I trace the scar with my finger.
Starting just behind my hairline above my left eye where there was raised, brutalized skin, there is now a smoothness that speaks nothing of what took place. As I travel further across the scalp, the road gets a little rougher. There are irregular bumps, a dent, a few scabs that I’m trying desperately not to pick at, all coming to a slightly less lumpy conclusion about two to three inches behind the hairline above my right eye. Only three friends have seen its post surgery loveliness. The first time I finally acknowledged its pulsating horror (yes, it was pulsing due to the fluids returning) I almost cried. But thankfully, no alien hand clawed through so I’m grateful for that.
This week I finally finished reading Henry Walsh’s book, Do No Harm. It was released in spring of this year, another weird brain related coincidence along with the latest release of Pixar’s animated feature film Inside Out. I learned quite a bit (actually, more than I cared to it turns out) about how neurosurgery is performed and how dangerous even the removal of a benign tumor in the most perfectly operable place can be. But I guess that was the point of getting the book, as I am still fascinated by all things neurological and brain related. Did you know a quarter of the blood pumped by the heart goes to your brain? Or that they likely used some kind of saw to cut into my skull? Isn’t that fascinating?
No wonder my doctor didn’t give me details on the operation. Reading about all the equipment used in a craniotomy had me more scared than any Clive Barker novel ever could. I mean…bone dust left in the hair. Yeesh. And the neurosurgeon’s life is no picnic either, which makes me wonder why someone would choose that career in the first place. It does take a special person to be able to tell a family that their loved one died on the operating table, or a person that their tumor is inoperable. I think they love cases like mine where the outcome will most likely turn out well.
And therapy continues. I’ve stopped with the speech pathologist for the moment and moved on to deal with the emotional part of my recovery. I met with a social worker specifically experienced with my situation, and also decided to attend group therapy for recovering brain trauma patients returning to the workplace. This was a really big step for me – I mean, really, really big. I was anxious about discussing my concerns but I really had no clue on how to deal with the emotional things that were happening to me on a daily basis. So, encouraged by my husband who had been taking the brunt of my frustrations, I took the leap.
It turns out that therapy is actually a very positive thing. My social worker turned out to be very experienced with my particular situation, and she reassured me that the things I was wondering about regarding the highs and lows of my recovery were completely normal. Towards the end of my session, I found myself eager to unburden myself with this woman who was like someone’s hip grandma. As for the group therapy later that day, that was unexpectedly helpful as well. I’d only seen group therapy sessions on TV or the movies, so I wasn’t sure what to expect – trench humor comedy or someone eventually needing to be restrained by prison guards . But it did actually help. These were all people who had experienced various kinds of brain trauma (mostly strokes and concussions – sadly, I was the only one who had a craniotomy) and I was surprised at how much we had in common despite our different injuries. I felt a sense of camaraderie, finally finding people with similar experiences. I promised to come back next month.
But it wasn’t all ragdoll kittens and rainbows. Eager to learn more about Henry Marsh, I had rented the DVD of The English Surgeon, one of two documentaries that featured this prominent English neurosurgeon and his contributions to modern medicine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t watch it. Once they showed an actual operation taking place and power tools firing up, I found myself too horrified to continue and hurriedly reached for the controller. But I did catch a glimpse of the special operating table that I had been curious about since my surgery. I assure you, it is not like a normal operating table, and I can’t find an image of it on the internet without having to view various pictures of brain surgeries in progress. Mine apparently was designed by my doctor, which makes sense because she would need to be as comfortable as possible while performing this most delicate of surgeries.
Well, enough about operating tables. Shall we?
Showtime! Act One, Scene 2
I was asked who I wanted to have with me until the operation started, and I said my twin brother, my mom, my husband and my best friend. My mother-in-law felt a bit excluded, but this was definitely the group of people I wanted to see last in case my recovery turned out less than fantastic. They had to be witness and say that once upon a time I was not a drooling vegetable who could feed herself lychee nuts, dress outrageously when necessary and not have to be assisted to the bathroom.
They appeared in pre-op looking like they’d just gone through the Forest of Despair. Apparently they’d gotten a little lost en route as it was, after all, a very large hospital. It had taken them quite a while to get there from the waiting room, accepting different directions from different people in various hallways. No wonder they had such a look of relief when they saw me at last. My best friend was laughing about it, actually, like she usually does when ridiculous circumstances are afoot. But that’s how she rolls, even when life decides to throw a wrench in the machine.
Fortunately there were enough chairs to go around, and everyone was able to sit and wait along with me. We discovered the Calming Images Before Your Brain Surgery channel – a loop of different scenes including penguins frolicking, whales bursting through ocean waves, and otters being painfully cute, and a smattering of other adorable animal antics interspersed with waterfalls and mountain views. It almost did the trick, but I was mostly relying on willpower and my need to not show fear in front of my family, lest that add to their already intense worry.
The pre-op team was the first to arrive. It’s been at least 30 years since I’ve been in surgery, and I certainly don’t recall a team of three nurses and two anesthesiologist preparing me. The team consisted of one male nurse, who appeared to be the leader of the group, and two female nurses, one being Filipina. They were very efficient. Everyone knew their role and quickly took care of business.
The anesthesiologist appeared next, who said he might not be the main one as his shift was almost over, but he promised the other anesthesiologist he would prep me anyway. I found this slightly unnerving, but dismissed it as normal hospital routine. He started a second IV for the anesthesia medication, and then taped the weirdest multiple tube contraption I’ve ever seen on my wrist. It appeared to be one long tube with several smaller tubes coming out of it, presumably for various other things that would go into my body. He didn’t really explain it and frankly, I didn’t really want to know what it was for. Some mysteries are better left unsolved.
My doctor finally popped in, fresh from other surgeries but still able to deal with mine, we were assured. What a superstar – who knows how many she had done already! I was last on her schedule, and it was a wonder she had any energy left to do it. But I figured that’s what she was trained to do, so I trusted that she’d live up to her stellar reputation. She offered some comforting words to my family and then left to get herself prepped for the operation.
I compare this part of the experience to getting ready for a gig. The eternal waiting that takes place beforehand, sound check, the pre-show jitters, then suddenly it’s time to strap on your bass and you’re not sure if you’re ready but damn the torpedoes, let’s get this thing done. It was time to say goodbye and my husband took my glasses, which mercifully spared me the sight of my mother’s face as she stood in the doorway watching. Her blurry figure was very still as everyone left, and I wondered if she was tearing up or quietly convincing herself her daughter would be alright.
Then the real anesthesiologist appeared from my left and introduced himself, explaining that the other guy was just getting me ready for his arrival when I expressed confusion. They lifted me onto a weird little table, just big enough for my body. It wasn’t anything like the long operating table you see on medical shows as it wasn’t that wide, and I felt in danger of falling off. (But why would they let that happen? Oh, they’re probably going to strap me down or something. Or something.)
I expected “Now count back from 10” like they usual do, but that instruction never came.
The last thing I said was “So, you’re going to put a catheter in me, right?” thinking how difficult it would be to get up from that dangerous little table to pee. A catheter would be just the thing I decided, uncharacteristically practical. A moment later I dropped, with frightening swiftness, into a profoundly dark and silent space, empty and still. No thoughts, no sensations. Nothing.