This is what support looks like

Within a 6 month period (June – December, 2018), I had 37 office visits, over 30 recorded focal seizures, 15 MRI’s, 7 CT scans, 4 hospitalizations, 2 craniotomies, 1 infection, and 1 incurable diagnosis, Neurofibromatosis, type 2 (NF2).  I had 17 Meningiomas (brain tumors),  6 ependymomas (spinal cord tumors), and 1 Acoustic Schwannoma (brain tumor in my ear). And a partridge in a pear tree.

I learned so many things during that period of time. One of them is support comes in many formsI also learned that it changes over time. No matter what form it takes though, a support system is meant to hold you up when things feel like they are crashing down.

Overwhelming Support

Initially, our extended network of friends and family were as shocked as we were by my diagnosis. We were flooded with cards, flowers, well wishes, handmade children’s art, visitors, and more thoughtful gifts than I could count.

Support

During this time, my husband, Josh, and I leaned on everyone. We were all hurting, together. I say “we” because it is not just the person in the hospital bed who needs support. I was fully aware that my diagnosis affected everyone I loved. At that time, they needed my support as much I needed theirs.

Private Support

After a few months, the ‘hype’ of my sudden diagnosis and back-to-back surgeries began to wear off; our meal train ended, and our wide circle of friends and family weren’t checking on us quite as often. During this time, Josh and I learned to lean heavily on each other for support. 

He needed me to be okay just as much as I needed him to push through all the medicine my body required to beat the infection. The infusion process took about 30 minutes, and it quickly became our daily reminder that we were fighting this battle together. 

Picc Infusions

In addition to taking care of me, and my PICC line, Josh also took on all of the parental responsibilities and housework we had previously shared. He bathed our crazy babies, made them dinner, picked them up from school, and put them to bed. He did all of our laundry, grocery shopping, fed the dog, and took me to appointments. It was like he was a single dad who had 3 kids (me being one of them)

When Josh had to go back to work, things changed again. I was still vulnerable and unable to take on my share of our daily responsibilities, and he could no longer do it all.

Balanced Support

That was when we realized we couldn’t do this by ourselves; we needed help.

During this time, Josh and I learned to lean on those who love us most.

Grandparents to the rescue! My mom-in-law stepped in immediately to help with our boys, take me to appointments, and make meals. She was available at the crack of dawn, and as long as I needed her until Josh got home from work at night. She offered irreplaceable love, and both physical and emotional support.

Nannie

My dad and step-mom also recognized our unspoken need for help, and flew in from Kentucky to offer reinforcement, at just the right time! They stayed with us for nearly 2 weeks, and did everything that I couldn’t at that time, allowing our boys to maintain normalcy in their own home. 

I remember waking up late one morning. I grabbed for the baby monitor and realized it had been silenced. I listened, and heard the most amazing sound in my house: normalcy! My dad and step-mom were playing with our children, and feeding them breakfast. Coffee was brewing; the smell reminded me of when I was a child. Those moments were the most healing. We were not alone.  

I’ve always said that having an amazing support system was critical to my recovery. Now, you know why.

We got through it. Together.

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

I want to take a moment to extend a heartfelt THANK YOU to every person who had said a prayer, sent flowers, made gifts, visited, brought meals, or wished us well throughout this process. We are so blessed to have the support system we do, and forever grateful.

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.

What, like it’s brain surgery?

As humans, we have a natural tendency to try to fix things that are broken. The problem with an incurable illness is that it cannot be fixed. There is no cure. Yet, we try anyway.

Two days prior to my scheduled craniotomy, my surgeon called. If you have a neurosurgeon, you know that getting a direct call from him or her is rarely to discuss the weather. This was no exception.

My latest MRI scan showed that the largest of my tumors (about the size of a large strawberry) had grown into the main vein that supplies blood flow to my body. He sensitively expressed concerns for cutting off blood supply to my brain (which would kill me), or causing a stroke and deficits. He still felt strongly that surgery was my best chance of survival as the tumor would continue to grow and eventually cut off blood supply on its own anyway. We had to do something.

I hope you’ve never had to hang up from a call like that.

All I could think was, “I want to live!”

I had worked hard and achieved so much out of life, but I hadn’t gotten to LIVE it all yet. It felt like we were just getting started. I still wanted to travel with my husband, finish our basement, and develop my career. I wanted to see my children grow up; the baby was born just last year! What sports would they play? What books would they read? Who would they decide to become?

I’ve always been a firm believer in talking to my children and telling them the truth. They’re young, and incapable of fully understanding such a BIG situation. But, when we talked to them, they understood “it hurts,” “I’m scared,” “I need the doctors help,” and “I’m doing this because I love you so much that I have to try.

I made it my mission to do everything I could to make them feel loved before surgery. Our favorite was going to Build-A-Bear so we could make “friends” to keep each other company while I was hospitalized again. I recorded my voice telling each of them how much I loved them so that they could hit the button whenever they missed me. Subconsciously, I also knew that if i didn’t wake up from surgery, I was leaving them with a beautiful memory, and a recording of my voice to remind them every day how big my love was.

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They made me a bear too, Buddy. He was a black and white Star Wars bear with yellow power ranger pajamas and a light saber. He was perfect. When we got home, I put him straight into my hospital bag. He was going to surgery with me.

Our 4 year old wanted to make beaded necklaces that said “forever,” so we knew “we are always together even when we are apart,” (yeah, he’s insightful). So we did. And, that night, I rocked my 1 year old, my last baby, in the silence of his room. When that wasn’t enough, I climbed over the railing and laid in his tiny little crib with him until he fell asleep.

Long after everyone else in the house was asleep (we had a full house!), I stayed up to finish writing a letter for my husband to read while I was in surgery. It included some helpful hints, like our Amazon password, what size clothes our kids were currently wearing, and a reminder to not ever feed our boys McDonalds, no matter how bad it gets! I also told him how much I love him, how he changed my life, and how hard I would fight to be there for him at the end of the day. Then it was time to try to sleep (yeah, right).

When my alarm went off at 4am, my eyes were already open. I didn’t bother with makeup, afterall, I was having a major craniotomy. But, I did take extra time to style my long blonde hair, knowing it would be the last time.

Then, I took off my jewelry; my wedding rings and a necklace that said “Be Brave.” I hadn’t taken either piece off since I left the hospital after being diagnosed. I took a deep breath. I felt totally exposed.

Brave

Upon arriving at the hospital, our medical team started fussing over me right away; there were papers to sign, IVs to put in, one last MRI to double check blood flow, and markers to be placed for navigation.

In order to properly place the markers, 8 patches of hair were shaved away by my nurses. I grit my teeth together as the buzzer shaved away, and closed my eyes so I didn’t have to see my long blonde hair hit the hospital bed or thrown in the trash. When the last marker was placed, I ran my hands through my hair, and huge clumps fell into my fingers. Without a word, my husband held out his hand to take the strands. And then he held me so I could cry.

In hindsight, it was such a trivial thing in the big scheme of things… to cry over a few spots of shaved hair. I know that hair grows back. But, it was the moment that everything hit me. This was happening. I was having brain surgery. And, I might not wake up from it.

My neurosurgeon came in, scribbled his initials on the right side of my forehead in blue marker, shook my husbands hand, and then it was time to go.

In the operating room, one of my anesthesiologists introduced herself, helped me settle on the table, and then placed the mask over my nose and mouth. She told me to take a few big breaths.

As I did, the room started to fade away. My last thought was “I want to live. Please God, let me live.”

And then I was out, and it was all between God and my neurosurgeon.

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