Dedicated to the medical staff at the Harold & Marian Poling Neuroscience Center – Royal Oak Beaumont aka 5 South.
Well, it’s Part Five of the Head and the Heart, my recollections of my April 2015 brain surgery. In Part Four, I gave detailed accounts of my return to normal activities like grocery shopping and driving, and finally getting off pain and anti-seizure medication. In this final post, I would like to share how I’ve changed and what I’ve learned from this life-changing experience.
First, let’s go over what the heck happened.
On April 6, I was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor called a meningioma. It was located in my left frontal lobe and arose from the meninges, the thin layers covering the brain and spinal cord. Meningiomas represent approximately one-third of brain tumors and often occur in middle-aged women. The medical world doesn’t know exactly what causes them, but one theory is a mutation in chromosome 22, which is largely responsible for the suppression of tumor growth.
I couldn’t pronounce “meningioma” at first, until I decided it sounded like an island off of Sicily. I proceeded to say it with an exaggerated Italian accent until I could say it correctly.
My tumor was about the size of a baseball and affected the speech centers of my brain. It was decided that a craniotomy was necessary to remove it, and would have to take place the next day. This type of surgery involves the temporary removal of bone to allow surgery and avoid any unnecessary disturbance to the brain. Or, as my husband called it, “muddling with my melon.” The tumor had also grown into a section of my skull, which would be replaced with a titanium plate.
All Things Neurological
Of course, I became extremely interested in all things related to the brain. I wanted to gain as much understanding as I could about what had happened to me, which may or may not have been a great idea. The things I learned frightened me more after the fact than if I had known them before surgery.
For example, in “Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery,” author and British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh describes his hate of cutting into the brain. “I look down my operating microscope, feeling my way downwards through the soft white substance of the brain, searching for the tumor. The idea that my sucker is moving through thought itself, through emotion and reason, that memories, dreams, and reflections should consist of jelly, is simply too strange to understand. Yet I know that if I stray into the wrong area, into what neurosurgeons call the eloquent brain, I will be faced by a damaged and disabled patient when I go round to the Recovery Ward after the operation to see what I have achieved”.
As I read through the rest of this book, I learned that despite detailed MRI images, you don’t really know what you’re dealing with until you see the problem face to face. In my case, my tumor was larger than expected. There were also risks that my doctor hadn’t mentioned, probably with good reason. I could have hemorrhaged, which is a common issue with brain surgery since a quarter of the blood in the body goes to the brain. It could have been discovered that the tumor was attached to my brain somewhere, which would have made removal much riskier. And, as with any surgery, one is at risk of severe infection if the right precautions aren’t in place.
Stuff That Helped
I feel that my quick and miraculous recovery was largely due to the number of people that were thinking of me. I now believe that the power of positive thinking can accomplish quite a lot, whether it’s through prayer, visualization, or wishing very, very hard that your friend will not be a gibbering moron after getting their melon muddled with. And it doesn’t hurt to know that almost 300 Facebook friends were pulling for you, either!
The fact that I’m a musician definitely helped me retain some of my cognitive skills. For many years, I’d been developing strength in the brain areas involved in playing music, through complicated songs like “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter and “Hysteria” by Muse. Who knew memorizing 16th-note patterns would help me one day?
I give regular exercise a lot of credit as well. Doing boot camp for the last couple of years definitely gave me a head start (I swear, that just came out – no pun intended!) for getting back on my feet. I dare not imagine how much longer it would have taken if I had sat around binge-watching “Game of Thrones” and eating bonbons every night.
I also took up transcendental meditation in an effort to gain the ninja superhero state of mind I experienced the first two weeks after surgery. A co-worker had suggested I try it, and in my research I had read that TM would improve prefrontal lobe activity by encouraging alpha wave production and brain wave coherence. In other words, you’re in a state of complete relaxation, but very awake and aware. I would never achieve that mindset I was pursuing, but I would come close. It has helped me manage stress levels as well, but I learned that the key is to do it regularly to get maximum benefits.
So I Turned Myself to Face Me
I took note of subtle changes in my thinking and perception, as well as my social interactions. I became quiet and more introverted, dressing in calmer attire rather than my usual outlandish passive-aggressive outfits. I went through a phase of deep thinking, of introspection and continual awe and disbelief of what I had gone through.
I’m better at being in the moment, experiencing seasons that first year as if I came from a place that had no fall or winter. An excerpt from my blog “It Takes a Tumor” illustrates this:
“Time stopped as I gazed upon the vibrant reds, lustrous oranges, the golden yellows all combined tastefully into one vivid psychedelic vision. It was not unusual for my attention to be arrested by a particularly stunning tree, noting every nuance of every leaf and its every subtle bit of coloration and veining. Maybe winter will hold new surprises. Perhaps the falling snow will bring tears to my eyes or compel me to do something diabolically creative. I feel like I’m experiencing fall for the first time. Honestly, I hadn’t expected such an emotional reaction to the colors of the changing leaves before. It’s like a miracle I’ve been living with for years and finally noticing.”
It has become more important to not only make new connections with other humans, but to make an effort to strengthen my existing relationships. And I often take a moment to think how lucky I am to still be alive and surrounded by good, caring people.
So now it’s almost the second anniversary, and I find I’m a little less anxious about it this year. Life is good. The scars, both kinds, are mostly healed. My new normal isn’t that new anymore, and I’m a changed person. I’m less upset by the little things and recover more quickly from them than I used to. After all, how bad could anything be when I’ve had brain surgery?
But I still hunger to converse with others who have had a similar experience to my own. For now, I will keep checking the blog “20 Things You Can Expect After Brain Surgery” that my husband had found the day before my operation. I find the newer comments comforting, as always. It’s probably as close as I’ll get.
I made him read the list several times to me before I went in. And he did it every time, that darling man.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog series and learned that the brain is both mysterious and miraculous, and that it’s ever evolving for the sake of the body’s survival. There are things in our control, and the more we experience the more we can change into what we would like to become.