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.

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.

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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 2 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.

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.

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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.