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 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.

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.