Surviving

Surviving is more than your heart beating in your chest, the breath in your lungs and a functioning brain. It means choosing to see beauty through ugliness, and finding hope on the bad days. It also means allowing yourself to acknowledge that not every moment can be perfect; the bad days are inevitable.

Brain surgery is hard. It’s tough on the person having their skull removed, and for the person in the waiting room. My husband, Josh, and I have learned to lean on each other; when I am weak, he is strong for us both; and when he struggles, I hold us up.

A few weeks after surgery, Josh told me, “everything they do to you, I’m doing to me.” That day, he had a replica of my incision tattooed on his own head.

When he was done, he came home and proudly showed me his tattoo, still covered in plastic and red from irritation. He said, “Now I have an idea of what you feel like all the time.

What an honor it is to be loved by someone like that. His compassion filled me with purpose during some of the toughest days of my life.

Most people don’t know it takes several weeks for anesthesia to really wear off after a major surgery like that. Once the anesthesia fully left my system, my body realized something was seriously wrong. My lymph nodes were swollen, I ran low grade fevers all the time, and pain radiated from my incision. I couldn’t even turn my head from side to side because the pain would shoot up toward my incision, and crawl down my neck. There were many days that I couldn’t even get out of bed.

I was re-hospitalized three weeks after surgery, and misdiagnosed with Shingles. There was no other explanation as the CAT scan showed no sign of infection, and I didn’t have any traditional signs of infection (redness, or high fever).

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I had never had brain surgery before, and after the doctor sent me home, I thought maybe that kind of pain was normal after a craniotomy. Maybe I just needed to be patient and get used to it. So I tried.

I tried for eighty two days after surgery to ‘get used to it.’ I went back to work, began cooking for my family again, went to a wedding, took our boys to the Punkin Chunkin festival, watched them ride bikes down our street, and even drank a glass of wine with a couple good friends (doctor approved).

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No matter how much pretending I did, or how seemingly ‘normal’ I appeared to look, I knew that something just wasn’t right. I’ve always believed in trusting your instincts, and I finally decided to trust mine; I saw my neurosurgeon after discovering a swollen welt near my incision.

I’m including a photo because if you’re a fellow NF2’er, or have ever had brain surgery, I want you to get to your surgeon if you ever experience this;

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During that visit, my surgeon asked if I was comfortable undergoing another surgery to “explore the area.”

My first reaction was, “hell no.” Were there any other options? I was terrified of going into the Operating Room again, knowing what could happen, and how tough recovery is.

But, then I remembered a little deal that I had made with God; when I prayed for my children not to have NF2, I had said over and over and over that I would graciously have a thousand tumors and surgeries if it meant my kids didn’t have to have one. I held up my end of the bargain, and my second surgery was scheduled.

Later, we would learn that hesitation or delay could have cost me my life.

This time, with surgery just one day away, I didn’t have time to go on a nice weekend getaway with Josh, or take our boys to do fun things before surgery. I had just enough time to call my family, pack a bag for the hospital, and make arrangements for our kids (I seriously have the best mom-in-law ever).

The morning of surgery, just 2 days before my 32nd birthday, Josh and I took our boys to school and did our best to pretend it was just like any other day. My surgeon had told us that he wasn’t 100% sure what to expect on the day of surgery; we had been told to prepare for a 15 minute outpatient procedure, but knew it could be longer depending on how things went. We decided to think positively, and didn’t want to scare our kids, so we told them that I just had a doctor appointment. I squeezed them tight, kissed their faces, and then Josh and I headed straight to the hospital.

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This time, when my IVs were inserted, and my surgeon came in to sign his initials on the right side of my forehead, it felt a bit like deja vu. He discussed the risks with us again, introduced us to an anesthesiologist again, I signed the paper on the clipboard again, and then it was time to go. Josh and I prayed with our good friend, and then we kissed goodbye.

This time, when the mask was put over my face, I welcomed sleep, thinking I would wake again in a mere 15 minutes. I was wrong.

Sometimes, surviving is hard, but it is always worth it.

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

Two Miracles

Leaving the hospital after having my first craniotomy was very similar to leaving the hospital after having my first child. I was terrified; I was in pain; I had a new incision (rather than a new baby); and I had no idea how to take care of it.

Before my diagnosis of Neurofibromatosis II (NF2), before brain tumors, before craniotomies and seizures, I was a very normal person. On any given weekday, I took my boys to school, worked a full day, and made my family dinner. I had been an active person, not just chasing toddlers, but going to the gym, advancing my career, going on family bike rides, and escaping for weekend camping trips.

After surgery, everything was different. I needed help with everything. My husband, Josh, poured my water, dispensed my medicines, helped me to the bathroom, and so much more. Light was intolerable and sounds were excruciating. Even the sound of my own voice was enough to make my head pound. My whole left side was numb and tingling, making it difficult to walk; I left the hospital with a cane that I relied upon to keep me upright. My daily goal after surgery was to hold my head up for 30 minutes a day.

Despite all of the tough adjustments, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a mother is prioritize myself. Having brain surgery temporarily forced me to take a backseat in the daily lives of my children and focus on my health. My husband took care of me, and his mom took care of our kids. She was able to provide them everything that we couldn’t during that time; routine, consistency, and more support than we could have asked for.

Slowly, I made progress. Every day brought small triumphs. After a week, I ventured outside for the first time, and sat in our driveway for a whole hour, watching our boys play and eat peaches.

After two weeks, I was able to sit in a shaded pool chair for two hours. I couldn’t get in the water, but I could watch our boys splash each other, and smother sunscreen onto their bare skin.

After three weeks, we went out for dinner for the first time;

After five long weeks of healing, my weight restriction was finally lifted and my neurosurgeon agreed it was safe to hold my children. I hadn’t held them since surgery. Think about that one for a moment… I had a 1 and 4 year old, and I couldn’t put the baby in his high chair or crib; I couldn’t lift them into their car seats; I couldn’t pick them up off the sidewalk when they fell down; I couldn’t even let them play monkey on my legs.

The second that changed, I couldn’t wait to get them both into my arms… and it was worth the wait! I went straight to their school after the appointment, and nearly ran through the hallways to their classrooms. I scooped my oldest up first; as I did, I said “guess what?” His brown eyes widened, “you’re holding me!” Although their friends at school probably thought I’d lost my mind as I cried and held each of them, it was one of those moments I will never forget… and never take for granted again.

The most important thing I ask myself when I make medical decisions is “will this allow me to continue to put my arms around the people I love, and tell them that I love them?” When the answer is yes, I consider it a viable option. That was exactly why I had decided to have the surgery to begin with; it was the only thing that allowed me to continue making memories with my family.

For that same reason, we had decided to move forward with genetic testing for myself and our boys. If they did share my diagnosis, we needed to be proactive in their care.

Six weeks after surgery, our geneticist confirmed my gene mutation as spontaneous. She said only 7% of my cells were affected. Seven percent. Isn’t it amazing how much damage a mere seven percent can do!?

She had described my condition as “unlikely,” “like getting hit by lightening.” She said “no one knows why this happens,” and “it can happen to anyone.” She also confirmed that each of our children had a 50% chance of having NF2 too. If they inherited it from me, it would mean that 100% of their cells would be affected; their condition would be worse than mine.

Every single night since being diagnosed, I had prayed over each of our boys as they slept. As we learned more about the monstrosities of NF2, I became more fearful and prayed harder and harder.

“Please, God, don’t let my children have to endure these hardships. They’re just babies. I want nothing more than to protect them. All I’ve ever wanted is to take the sick away from them. I would gladly have a thousand surgeries and tumors if it means they don’t have to have one. Let me do this for them. Let it just be me. Show us your miracles; they deserve it.”

Finally, ten weeks after surgery, my cell phone finally rang with the news we had anxiously been waiting so long for. Our geneticist blurted out, “they both tested negative for NF2!!

Relief flooded every cell of my body, and started pouring out of my eyes. I was so emotional that I couldn’t drive, and had to pull over.

The first thing I did was call my husband, Josh. Whenever I call during the middle of the day, he answers the phone with “Hey babe, are you okay?” I knew he would hear my tears, so I quickly shouted “they don’t have it! They don’t have NF2!!” I must have said it ten times before he understood me. I could hear the news sink in over the phone, and he began to tear up and smile as well.

Finally, we had some uplifting news to share with our support system! I happily began calling everyone we knew. Each time I said “they don’t have it,” I was filled with more hope.

HOPE

It was a huge turning point for me; my whole perspective had shifted. Right in the middle of hardship, we had been given 2 perfect little miracles. It filled me with the courage I needed to continue fighting my battles.

There were more tough days ahead, but now I had all the fuel I needed to overcome.

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