My Ponytail

I wore my hair in a ponytail the other day. A ponytail! While this may be an everyday occurrence for some people, it was a major milestone for me.

It’s now been 6 months since my last craniotomy.

After surgery, my recovery was so gradual that sometimes it felt as though I would never get better. At timesit even felt like I was getting worse because progress was so minimal from one day to the next. I had never been so physically broken.

Then, months after surgery, I started to realize how much progress I had actually made. There were several milestones, and they started small; the first time I held my own head up for an hour; the first time I stood up after surgery;

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Even coming home from the hospital was a celebrated milestone. Then, the first time I walked to the bathroom without the cane; the first time I slept through the night; the first time I went an entire day without a nap or pain medicine; the first time I was able to hold my kids;

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Then the milestones became more spaced out; the first time I was able to drive again; the first time I did 10 minutes of physical activity (running in place); the first time I was allowed to get on an airplane; the first time I could tolerate wearing a hat, and the first time I was able to submerge my head under water;

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But, until just recently, I still hadn’t been able to tolerate wearing my hair in a ponytail.

When it happened, it was completely unintentional. I’d had a long day at work, and was washing the make-up off of my face. My hair clip had gone missing (a common occurrence in a household with 2 toddlers who “borrow” anything that looks remotely interesting). So, instead, I grabbed a black hair tie from the bathroom drawer, and awkwardly pulled my now short hair into a tiny ponytail.

Then, my boys came running in like whirlwinds. As always, they needed milk, water, a stuffed animal, books, and help brushing their teeth before bed.

Nearly an hour passed before I realized my hair was still in that tiny ponytail. I went to the mirror and looked at my reflection. I smiled. Another milestone. Another small reminder of the progress I continue to make.

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I am not fully healed yet. But, that pony tail promises that one day soon, I just might be. 

This is my story, and it is not over yet.

Bombs & Brain Tumors

At the center of our humanity is a need for connection, and I am a firm believer that God gives us the people we need in our lives, at just the right time. 

20 years ago, God put Bekah in my life. 15 years ago, He made us best friends.

 

Exactly 6 years ago today, He nearly took her away. She had been standing less than 3 feet away from the first bomb that went off, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon Bombing.

10 months ago, the day I was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis II, she was the first person I wanted to call. She was the only person who would understand. But I couldn’t. 

I knew that if I called her, I would just cry, and I wouldn’t be able to get words out. So, I texted her…

“I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance last night after an episode at home… Apparently a headache I’ve been experiencing for the last couple of days is serious. A CT scan showed multiple brain tumors, one of which is causing seizures on my left side. I was admitted and am having a MRI done this morning and then developing a plan with a neurosurgeon. We definitely need to remove the tumor; it sounds like I will go into surgery sometime tomorrow. I’m so sorry.”

I apologized at the end, because I knew exactly how she would feel after reading it: the same way I felt upon learning that she’d been blown up by a bomb. 

Her next message was plain and simple, “I’m getting on a plane today. I love you.

Upon learning of my condition, there were several people who jumped on flights, and in their cars to get to Colorado, but Bekah was the first one to arrive. She even beat my dad and stepmom by a couple of hours!

As soon as she walked into the hospital room, she jumped right into bed with me, and both of our eyes filled up with tears.

Neither of us needed to say anything; she knew exactly how I felt, and I knew exactly how she felt. I’d grown accustomed to seeing her in a hospital bed, and she’d gotten used to me visiting… neither of us expected to have the roles reversed.

That night, after all of our visitors left, and the hospital became quiet, Bekah sent my husband home. He knew I was in good hands, and I knew he needed a good night of sleep.

Like any reunited friends do after time away from one another, Bekah and I stayed up talking, laughing, and crying until the crack of dawn. Eventually, she took her prosthetic leg off.

When a nurse came in to take my stats, Bekah joked, “let me move my leg for you.” My nurse smiled comfortably, as only nurses know how to do, and casually asked what happened.

It was a story I had heard so many times before, but that night, something was different as I listened to Bekah talk about how she had been less than 3 feet from the first bomb that went off, separated from her 5 year old child, rushed to the hospital, and finally had her leg amputated due to the severity of her injuries.

As she spoke, I mentally filled in the blanks, remembering how mangled her body had been, how her hair had been singed away by the blast, how she’d endured 67 surgeries, how much shrapnel was still embedded in her muscles, and how many nights she’d called crying. How she’d almost died.

Bekah

But, in true Bekah fashion, she never got lost in the horrific details of that experience. She always stayed positive; stating the facts and how she’s grown as a person because of it.

She said, “Being a victim is a not a choice, but being a survivor is.”

Although that night was like so many others we’d spent together, it will always stand out in my memory. It was the night I decided to be a survivor too. 

When the time came for me to go home to my family, and Bek to get home to hers, she left me with a necklace that said “Be Brave.”

Around her own neck she wore “Be Strong.” It had been given to her as a gift after the bombing. It had come with a match, ‘Be Brave,’ and a note that said one day, she would know who to give it to.

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She’d held onto ‘Be Brave’ for 6 years before placing it around my neck.

I wore it every day until surgery. It was exactly what I needed to overcome my own challenges. Every day I would look at it and be inspired to find the beauty amid tragedy, just as she had.

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After my first craniotomy, the first words I said were, “God is not done with me yet.

If you’ve been following my story, you already know this. What you may not know is that it was a subconscious line that I had heard before… they were the same words Bekah said upon waking from her medically induced coma after the bombing.

In a state of semi-consciousness, we both said the exact same phrase during the toughest moments in both of our lives.

Perhaps it is all of those years of friendship that have entwined our strength together, or maybe, just maybe, those words are true;

God is not done with us yet.

This is our story, and it is not over yet.

Craniotomy Me… Again

When I woke up from my first craniotomy, I felt so alive! I had a waiting room full of people who loved me, and a full understanding of everything that was happening.

When I woke up from my second surgery, it was completely different.

In the recovery room, I remember opening my eyes just one time. I saw the face of a nurse for a fraction of a second, and then the pain became intolerable. So I quickly shut my eyes again, and willed sleep to come. Thankfully, it did.

When consciousness came back to me, I was already in the ICU; I recognized the paint on the wall from my previous craniotomy. Oh no, I thought, something must have gone wrong. I’d gone in that morning for surgery expecting a quick, 15 minute procedure to clean up a possible skin infection. It was supposed to be an outpatient procedure, meaning I would go home that same day.

I reached up, and felt the horribly familiar bandages wrapped around my head. I also had several wrist bands layered on my arm.

“What happened?” I asked my husband, Josh. “You’re okay,” he said. But, I could tell from the crease between his eyebrows and that backwards hat that he was worried.

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Over time, throughout waking moments, Josh patiently explained that my neurosurgeon had found a bacterial infection, and it was much deeper than anyone could have guessed. A full craniotomy had been performed. It had taken about 3 and a half hours (nearly as long as my first surgery to remove two meningiomas).

How had this happened? Did I do something wrong?  I remembered how carefully I’d washed my hair after my first craniotomy; with the hospital shampoo exactly as directed. I had adhered to the weight restriction, and took every pill as prescribed. I even changed my pillowcase every day for a month. Yet, somehow, an ugly little germ had beaten my efforts, crept under my skin, and left my body in jeopardy.

If you’ve ever had surgery, you know that “INFECTION” is a bad word. If you’ve ever had brain surgery, you know it’s the mother of all bad words. If the infection reaches your brain, there is very little chance of survival. Thank God, we had caught mine just before it reached that point.

If we had waited any longer to explore the area, I might not be alive today. And, I remembered that many times over those next few days when I was inclined to think “why me,” or “this sucks,” and “it hurts.” Every time I threw up jello; every time a new bag of antibiotics was hung; every time I grit my teeth from pain; every time I tried to stand on legs that I couldn’t feel, I was still so grateful to be alive.

After 3 long days, the bandages came off. My medical team agreed that the incision looked “good” and Josh took a photo to show me where a section of my scalp had been removed to keep the infection from coming back. 

I’m including the photo below, so if you’re squeamish, I suggest scrolling quickly past it.

my head

The test results had come back, and the bacterial infection was confirmed. I required a heavy dose of antibiotics that would need to be given intravenously, which meant that I had two options. I could stay in the hospital for six weeks, or I could get a PICC line.

The thought of having a central line inserted into my arm that dropped medicine directly into my heart was terrifying. But, the thought staying in the hospital for six more weeks was worse. We hadn’t seen our kids since the morning before surgery, and we were ready to get home to them.

A specialized team came into my hospital room, turned it into a sterile surgical environment, and inserted the small purple line that would allow me to go home!

Having had 2 craniotomies in 3 months, we’d become friends with many of the nurses on the floor. They had helped me at my weakest moments, when I couldn’t even put those ugly yellow hospital socks on my own feet, or walk 3 steps to the bathroom. And, they were happy to celebrate with us as we got ready to be released. By “we,” I mean, I stood for one photo while Josh did everything else; packed our bags, took everything to the car, and discussed next steps with my medical team.

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When we walked in the door to our house, we discovered that our kitchen had been transformed! A birthday banner was hung, balloons tied to the chair. Beautiful yellow sunflowers, a pumpkin cake (my favorite), and even gifts decorated the counter.

Have I told you yet how awesome my mom-in-law is?

I had spent my 32nd birthday in a hospital bed, recovering from a brain surgery I didn’t expect to have. While that isn’t how I prefer to spend my birthdays, I know that medical intervention is what allows me to continue to have birthdays.

I used to dread turning another year older, but now, I’ll never take for granted being able to blow out the candles again.

This is my story, and I’m just amazed that it is not over yet. 

23 Days

I was fresh out of the hospital, newly diagnosed with NF2 and an emotional trainwreck. One minute I was elated to sleep in my own bed and not be poked for blood at 4am, the next I was frustrated from being in pain, and afraid of having more seizures.

Walking through the garage door into our kitchen was tough. The last time I had been in that kitchen, I had fallen onto that turquoise rug by the sink from my first seizure, the one that changed everything.

Rug

Now, the house was busting with company; friends and family had flown in from all over the U.S. to support us. Upon my arrival, our ‘guests’ quickly busied themselves with laundry, cooking, and grocery shopping so I could rest. I woke up about an hour later to find myself alone in the house while my husband picked up my prescriptions, my dad and stepmom picked up my brother and sister-in-law from the airport, and my mother-in-law picked up my kids. Never underestimate the power of an amazing support system!

I turned the shower on and stared at my face in the mirror while the water warmed. Did I look different? My reflection appeared the same on the outside, but on the inside, I was completely overwhelmed. My husband had stayed with me every minute in the hospital and I had stayed strong for him. I knew that if I crumbled, he would too. But, here, all alone, in our home, I allowed myself to feel the emotions that I had suppressed; anger; frustration; confusion; fear.

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Instinctively, I fell to my knees on the bathroom floor. As the shower ran, I cried. And then my cries turned to screams. I screamed for my children and the possibility of them having NF2 too; I screamed for my husband because he doesn’t deserve this; I screamed for my dad because the worst thing in the world is to watch your child suffer. And then I screamed for me. I screamed out all the “why is this happening” and all of the “why me’s.” I screamed out all the frustration of being diagnosed with an incurable illness, and all my fears for what was next.

And then I prayed. I prayed like I had never prayed before. I prayed for all of the things I had screamed for just moments ago.

And then I was done. I have never been the type to linger very long in a self-induced pity party. I decided that would be my last tantrum; besides, my 4 year old was better at it anyway. I stood up, wiped the tears from my face, and let the shower wash away the hospital. Is it just me, or is there something seriously healing about a hot shower?

I had 23 days before I would be readmitted for my first craniotomy. It was the best gift I could ask for, and I was ready to make the most of it. 

I would never wish NF2 on anyone, but for the first time, I appreciated the diagnosis. It gave me the unique opportunity to look at life through a different lens, and reevaluate what was really important. I held my children longer, kissed my husband more often, and told all of the people I love that I love them. I fell in love with life again.

We took our boys to the park just to watch them play, introduced our 1 year old to the movie theater, brought our 4 year old to the best steakhouse in Denver, lit fireworks in front of our house on the 4th of July, and drank the expensive wine.

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A week before surgery, we took our boys to a Rockies game with one of my oldest friends who had flown in with her family from Kentucky, where I was raised. If you have brain tumors, I know what you’re thinking; the noise; the walking; the pain! But I went anyway, because I wanted so badly to see the joy on my boys faces and to experience something that had been normal for us before my diagnosis. I did it! I walked all the way around the stadium, cheered for the Rockies, and helped my babies to clap in all the right places, despite the noise. The Rockies lost that night, but I have never enjoyed a ballgame so much.

5 days before surgery, our best friends offered to take our boys for a fun sleepover, and Josh arranged a weekend getaway in Estes Park for just the two of us. We had some tough conversations about what could happen on the day of surgery, cried a little, laughed a lot, fed the squirrels on the mountain, and finished our weekend getaway with a great dinner at the Stanley Hotel.

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By the time I went in for surgery, I had never been more certain that this life is so worth fighting for. I was ready.

This is my story, and it is not over yet.

Neurofibroma-what!?

Neurofibromatosis II. Neuro – Fi – Bro – Muh – Toe – Sis. NF. NF2.

The first time we heard this word was the day I was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (NF2). I had never heard the word before, and had no idea what it meant.

Initially, all we knew was that I had two large masses (meningiomas) covering a good portion of the right side of my brain, causing partial seizures on the left side of my body. I was admitted to SkyRidge Medical Center, in Denver, for observation with the understanding that I could have brain surgery as soon as the next morning due to the sudden nature and severity of my symptoms. In the meantime, I spent a great deal of time in MRI machines (thank goodness I’m not claustrophobic), and had more tests and conversations with specialists than I could count. It was a complete whirlwind.

We learned so much in those initial days; NF2 is incredibly rare; it currently affects only 1 out of every 30,000 people; it is typically hereditary. Since no one in my family had been diagnosed, it was concluded that in my case, NF2 was the product of a spontaneous gene mutation, which is even rarer.

Each of our children had a 50% chance of having it too. That was devastating. My reaction? I needed to see my kids. They had been staying with family while my husband, Josh, and I were at the hospital. I couldn’t get my arms around them fast enough. As soon as they walked in the room, I pulled them right into the bed with me and studied their faces. Was it possible that tumors could be lurking behind those cute little eyes? Had there been signs? Had we missed something?

little visitors in the hospital

Every night before I fell asleep, I would pray that they wouldn’t be diagnosed in the days to come. I didn’t pray for me. I prayed for them. I knew that I would find the strength to endure whatever came next as long as my children were safe from the monstrosities of NF2.

The only fool-proof way to confirm the diagnosis is by genetic testing, which can take several weeks. We called our pediatrician, and she put in the orders for our boys to see Genetics. Since they weren’t showing signs or symptoms of NF2, we would have to wait, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the luxury of time on my side. Rather than starting the process for my own genetic confirmation of NF2, I was tested for characteristics of the disease. The hallmark of the disease is bilateral acoustic schwannomas (tumors in each of the ear canals). My MRI proved that I had one in my left ear. This causes balance issues, and will eventually lead to hearing loss in that ear.

The MRIs also showed meningiomas. At first, all the doctors could say was “several.” Then they said “many.” The final MRI report told us there were seventeen. SEVENTEEN little intruders hiding away in my brain. Thankfully, they all showed qualities of being benign, another indicator of NF2. But, they can still do as much damage as malignant tumors, and are often treated that way with forms of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.

During one of several visits with a neurologist, I asked, “how long have the tumors been there?” He replied, “Probably most of your life.” I must have had a shocked and confused look on my face. He asked, “have you ever heard ringing in your ears?” My response was, “yes, doesn’t everyone?” Apparently not.

I soon realized not everyone loses their balance and falls over putting their shoes on; not everyone has headaches for five days in a row; not everyone slices their hand every time they use a knife; not everyone has over reactive reflexes as a child that intensify as they age. I had become so accustomed to these things that I didn’t even know they were signs. My body had been trying to tell me for years that something was wrong, and I had completely missed it.

Just when we thought we had finally wrapped our heads around everything, we were thrown another curve ball. Spinal tumors, often ependymomas, are another indicator of NF2. My MRIs showed them, too. I have six more invaders growing within my spinal cord; the largest one growing in my neck area. This is the scary one. Even if you’re familiar with my story, you may not know this. That bright white spot in the photo below can eventually cause paralysis from my neck down. The discovery of this tumor ended up being the reason I was released from the hospital. There was not a brain surgeon who would operate on me without weigh in from a spinal specialist first.

Spinal Cord Tumor

So, I was released, and connected to ‘the best’ neurosurgeon and spinal specialist in the area. We left the hospital with more questions than answers. We also left with the gift of time. Rather than being rushed into emergency brain surgery, I got to go home to my family. It was all I wanted. I had never been so grateful to just be alive.

I was working with one of the best neurosurgeons in the U.S., and I will always remember something he said to me during our first appointment, just a few days after my release. He said, “Nothing has changed. These tumors have likely been a part of you for the majority of your life. The only difference is now you know about them.”

He was right.

This is my story, and it is not over yet.

*DISCLAIMER: This post documents my own experiences with Neurofibromatosis II. There are various forms of the disease, and every case seems to present itself differently. This blog is not intended to offer medical advice or counsel. Please refer medical questions to your team of doctors.

The Diagnosis

We are all vaguely aware that life can change in an instant, a heartbeat, a blink of an eye. In the backs of our minds, we know we’re one car crash, one decision, one diagnosis away from a completely different life. Yet, we don’t want to live in fear of the unknown, so we subconsciously suppress this truth until the day it smacks us in the face.

My story begins on the very day that I was blindsided; June 24th, 2018. Our family had just returned home from a beach vacation in South Carolina. Photo from our last night at the pier:At the Pier, Myrtle Beach

It was a Sunday. My husband, Josh, and I were doing housework while our four year old was teaching our one year old the best way to play with Play-Doh at our kitchen counter. It was such an ordinary moment, and we’d had a hundred others just like it… until I felt a horrible sensation rip through the nerves in my left arm. I told Josh, “my whole arm just went numb.” He asked if I was okay, and I could only respond “no” in between screams.

My skin felt like it was trying to harness golf balls moving wildly in my veins. Pain was everywhere; my neck, head, ear, ribs, and arm; all on the left side. Just when I thought it would never stop… it did, just as suddenly as it had started.

In an instant, I could hear again. My kids were crying; they were scared. My husband was on the phone with 911. I was kneeling on the kitchen floor, staring at my left hand.

It’s a funny feeling when your body moves without you telling it to. In an odd way, it felt like I had been betrayed by my best friend. My mind and body had been together forever, my mind knew my body better than anyone, and my body always did what my mind told it to do. Except for today. Today my body acted on it’s own accord, without any direction. It was terrifying.

By the time the ambulance arrived, I was already reassuring my frightened boys that mommy was just fine; “my arm just hurts and I need a doctor to look at it.” When I reflect on this moment, I often laugh at how ‘mom instincts’ tend to take over. Here I was, in the middle of the most terrifying moment of my life, and my need to protect and reassure my children was stronger than the fear I had for myself, or what was to come.

But, the second I stepped into the ambulance, I became the child, and the trained medical team did their best to explain what was happening, and keep me calm.  “It could be a stroke, but more than likely, it’s just a pinched a nerve,” the EMT had said. It was easy to believe him. I had never been a ‘sick’ person.’ Sure, I’ve had colds, but I’ve never been to the hospital, except for giving birth to our babies. I’ve never even had a cavity!

By the time we arrived at the hospital, I felt incredibly silly being wheeled in on a stretcher with my purse in my lap. As I was being steered down the long hallway, I caught the eyes of a young girl sitting in a hospital bed. We looked at each other for what seemed like a long time. Her face was full of worry. She had been crying. I couldn’t help but wonder what her story was.  Looking at her made me feel a bit embarrassed for rushing into the ER over a pinched nerve when there were people who needed those beds for more serious things. My thoughts were interrupted as my own bed took a turn and I was settled into a room nearby. Later, I wondered if she had the same thoughts about me.

Within minutes, I was being questioned, poked and prodded. Josh showed up sooner than I ever thought possible, having taken our boys to our neighbor’s house, and was sitting with me while we talked to a neurologist via video conferencing (thank you, Technology!).

When asked to explain the incident, I felt the same sensation tear through the left side of my body. This time, without my children present, and the hospital noises, smells, and sounds around us, a harsh reality started to sink in. Something was seriously wrong.

Screams and tears were pouring freely, and my arm was moving wildly on its own; I couldn’t control it. The hospital staff began to scramble, and medicine poured into my veins through an IV. Again, the episode stopped as suddenly as it had began, but this time, the hospital staff had seen it, and, they had suspicions of what was going on.

Over the next several hours, I was subjected to test after test, and answers began to come. First, seizure activity was confirmed. Then, we were told about the brain tumors; “several.” Finally, for the first time, we heard the word Neurofibromatosis II.

Although this news was detrimental, all I could do was laugh. I laughed so hard I cried. Were they sure they had the right scans? I couldn’t even pronounce the word; ‘Neurofibromatosis.’ I told the neuro that he had to be wrong; afterall, the EMT had assured me this was only a pinched nerve.

MRI - Tumors

Despite my inability to comprehend what was happening, I was admitted for further observation. My husband never left my side. He made all of the right phone calls, asked all the right questions, and let me fall asleep that night in ignorant bliss, thinking there had to be some sort of mistake.

I was woken up he next morning for a blood draw. The lights were turned on for visibility, and Josh was laying on the hard couch in the room. His eyes were open. We stared at each other until my blood had filled 4 vials, and the phlebotomist left the room.

Then, Josh said said the 5 words that made everything true; “it’s going to be okay.”

That was the moment I realized this was not a dream. It was real. I had Neurofibromatis II; a diagnosis that would change my life. I wasn’t quite sure yet exactly what was going to change, but I knew it was big.

I’ve always believed that although we don’t get to choose what happens to us, we do get to decide how we react to it. These are the moments that define us.

This is my story. And it is just getting started.