I was 17 years old, on my way to my fast food job during my senior year of high school. It was pouring rain at the time, and I was involved in a hit-and-run accident when someone in a very large truck ran a stop sign. My car went skidding sideways, with my head striking the driver’s side window as my body went hurtling sideways. I was taken to the emergency room, where a head CT was done. I had a concussion, and was sent home. Lucky me.
But then a couple days later, we got a call from our family doctor telling us to report to the office to discuss the results of the head CT. It turns out that the radiologist, when reviewing the films, had discovered something out of the ordinary. I will never forget the sound my heart makes when it drops out of my chest, as it did that day when my doctor drew a crude depiction of a brain on a dry-erase board, explaining where they had found the mass. It was two days before Christmas. My follow-up with the neurosurgeon was a week later, the day after my eighteenth birthday. They sent me to the best. The Mayfield Neurological Institute of Cincinnati. So we trusted him when he told us that it was too small to be of concern, that it may possibly even be artifact on the film. It was forgotten as the years passed.
Here we are now. I’m a wife, a mother. A healthcare professional. And while I was sleeping off a twelve hour night shift, I am awakened to blinding, stabbing pain in my forehead. Pain so intense that my screams caused my husband and young son to run to see what was wrong. The room was spinning and nausea set in. Then came the fear. I was taken to the ER, where a head CT was done…..again. I knew it was not good when the doctor called me to the nurse’s station to look at the scan on his computer. For a moment, I was out of my own body. This is the same physician I had worked alongside to save the life of others. This was someone else’s brain on the screen. But there it was. Just lateral to midline on the right of my frontal lobe. That ugly, ugly thing that had caused the phone call all those years ago. As we stood there looking at it, another physician with whom I had worked walked through, saw the film, and exclaimed “Oh, S##T!”, not realizing it was my head we were looking at. That is when the tears started. The doctor’s voice seemed to be coming from somewhere else as he told the nurse to schedule the next scan with contrast. When she asked for the indication, it seemed unreal when he said “Brain tumor, right frontal lobe”.
That was March 14th. Since that day, the pain has not stopped unless it was under the influence of narcotic painkillers. I cannot work while on narcotics, so I have had time to mull this over in my head. There has now been a total of 6 head scans, including an MRA (Thanks to Dave, who knew immediately what it was!), 2 standard MRI’s, and MRI with contrast, and 2 CT’s. Yet we still do not know what is happening. The theory is that the pain is caused by the tumor pressing on my skull, causing back pressure on my brain. The debilitating symptoms alone are enough to justify its removal. I have not gotten official word just yet.
But what is most profound to me are the thoughts that have gone through my head. We expect our patients to trust us, no matter what. With their lives, the lives of their children, siblings, parents. Yet now that the time has come, I am having a hard time trusting the capable hands I have worked alongside for some time now. We expect them to take what is coming with ease, yet the idea of someone opening my skull is terrifying me. What is to become of me? What is to become of the brain that holds so much? The tissue that holds within it the memory of my son’s first step, my mother who I lost all of those years ago. The memories are all I have left of her. What is to become of my career when someone is to take a scalpel to the area that tells my hands exactly how to intubate, or exactly what drug to give to counteract my patient’s life-threatening arrhythmia?
I am learning too. For the scans, all of them, I was not claustrophobic enough to require sedation, but only for one reason, and one reason only. My John. I could get through all of them as long as I felt his hand on my ankle, telling me he was there, even when I could not see him. It did not matter that the tech was watching from another room, or that she made sure the call button was in my hand before she left me. It just mattered that my Marine was there for me if I got into trouble. After over seven years in a marriage where I have always been the strong one, it took this to show me how much I truly need him with me. To realize that it will all be okay if he is there. That we will survive this too. Together we can.
So why am I telling you all of this? I honestly am not sure. Part of me is hoping you will learn something from the story. Perhaps you will approach your patient a little differently, or hug your loved ones a little tighter. But another part of me wonders if this is something we all have to learn on our own.