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.

Appearances

Physical appearance is exactly that; an appearanceAnd, appearances can be deceiving, especially when there is so much that lies beneath the surface.

Many conditions that are completely invisible to those not experiencing them first-hand. Neurofibromatosis II is often one of them.

After having my second craniotomy, I didn’t want to be labelled or defined by a diagnosis, or as a ‘sick” person, so I put a lot of effort into my appearance; making myself look “fine” on the outside.

I covered my PICC line with a long sleeved shirt, used makeup to hide the dark circles under my eyes, and cut my long blonde hair short to help blend in the multiple bald spots that had been shaved away during surgeries. I even learned to style it just right so that the majority of my stitches were covered.

In hindsight, my efforts were a bit vain. But, my appearance was one thing I felt as though I still had control over, when so many aspects of my life and health were spiraling out of control.

The truth is, you can’t see brain and spinal tumors on the outside. You can’t see exhaustion, brain inflammation, dizziness, or tinnitus. You can’t see remnants of seizures; numbness and tingling. You can’t see pain.

Part of me was grateful that strangers, co-workers, and even my own children couldn’t see all of the symptoms that were laying right below the surface. “You look great!” they would say. And I let them believe that I was great.

Another part of me wanted to wear a t-shirt that said something like “fresh out of brain surgery” so everyone would understand.

I remember walking into a neurology appointment one afternoon, just two weeks after surgery, with high hopes of having my stitches removed that day. It was one of those days; I’d had a migraine, and a hard time getting out of bed. The hour long drive to the medical office has zapped all energy I had left, and my body was physically shaking as I walked from my mom-in-law’s car to the building (she was kind enough to chauffeur me when I couldn’t drive). I actually wondered if I might pass out before I got to the door. A man was walking in ahead of us, but my legs weren’t moving fast enough. He glanced back, saw that I looked “fine,” and let that heavy door shut right in my face.

It was the first time that I wanted to scream “I just had brain surgery!!” How could he not see the pain I was in, and how much I was struggling?

What I didn’t realize at the time, was that there would be many more moments when I wanted to scream and shout until everyone ‘got’ it.

There would be moments at work when I would cry in the bathroom because a sudden migraine had hit, and I couldn’t open my eyes against the light over my desk; there would be moments when I had to hide from my children because their normal sounds would make my head pound.

I was not fine.

My brain had just been tampered with – twice in 3 months. A portion of my skull had been removed, and was now being held in place by 5 titanium ‘snowflakes.’ My scalp was held together by thread. Just to get out of bed each morning, I required a handful of medications and an IV infusion to keep the infection from coming back.

I took roughly 25 pills per day, had a home health nurse who cared for me, and relied on my husband to push antibiotics through my PICC line multiple times per day.

One day, I would be “fine” again, but for now, I was broken. And that was okay.

OK

True healing takes time. Although I’ve never exactly been patient, I knew I owed it to myself to take the time I needed.  Eventually, I knew healing would come, and when it did, I would hold the door open for every person behind me, even if they appeared to be “fine.”

This is my 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.

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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. 

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.