Doing It All Over Again – The Second Surgery Pre-Op

In my prior post, https://braincancerbabe.com/2016/06/29/the-confirmed-recurrence-and-yet-another-brain-surgery  I explained that on June 30, 2015, I underwent my second brain surgery.

There isn’t much I’d detail about the day of that second surgery.  It was pretty much the same routine over again.  There were several ridiculous moments in the pre-op process though.  Just to add some levity to a seriously scary situation, I’ll explain.

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My surgery was delayed for quite a while (at least an hour or more) because the nursing staff found that my results of the routine pregnancy test, given to any female patient under a certain age, was “inconclusive.”  The chaos this caused around the staff was almost unbelievable – laughable even, if it hadn’t been me.  The staff even went so far as to call down a “specialist” to review the results.  Mind you, they never spoke to me directly – I overheard it all through my very bare curtain while sitting in my pre-op bed.  Of course, I knew full-well I was not pregnant.  Did I really need this on top of waiting for my second brain surgery???

My neurosurgeon finally came in with a smile on his face.  “So, you’re not pregnant!”  He clearly realized the ridiculousness too.  He always does though.  That’s why I love him so much.

Another thing I will never forget is the first nurse they assigned to prepare me for surgery.  I can say with absolute sincerity, I have never encountered what I’d consider a “bad nurse” in my hospital… with the exception of this one.  Let’s call her Jane (I don’t even know her real name anyway).

Jane was relatively young.  She was probably in her late 20s.  She never smiled.  She was completely monotone when she spoke.  Basically, she seemed like this was the last place she wanted to be.  Ya know, mind you, she was dealing with patients going into brain surgery!  Suck it up, honey!  If you’re having a “bad day” mine is probably a little worse.  So, needless to say, the pre-op station was probably the last place she should have been assigned.

On top of her miserable demeanor, it was her duty to give me my IV.  I mentioned casually as she was prepping the IV that I had great veins and no one had ever missed a vein.  Murphy’s Law, of course.  What would you know?  She was so mindless that of course, she missed my vein.  Apart from failing to get my vein, it actually hurt a lot.  I immediately began to cry, hard.  Rather than apologize, she took out the needle, rolled her eyes and sighed in annoyance.  Then, she stalked out of the area.

As if in a movie, kinda like Wonder Woman, another nurse (Let’s call her Mary) pulled back the curtain, swooped in and took charge!  While Jane attempted to come back in, Mary abruptly turned to her and said in no uncertain terms, “I’ve got this!”  I never saw Jane again, thankfully.

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From then on, Mary stayed with me, even wheeling me into the operating room.  We talked about imagining my favorite place, the beach, and sipping cocktails all day in the sun.  She helped soothe me and calm me down.  I laughed and smiled the whole time she was with me.  Thank God for Mary.

So, with Mary by my side, there I was, in the operating room.  I was surrounded by surgical staff frantically running all around.  Once again, I was looking up at the enormous operating room lights.  I could hear the loud hum of the MRI machine.  I was just about to undergo my second brain surgery, just doing it all over again.

Continued Hospital Stay

Release from the Misery of the Neuro-Observation & Continued Hospital Stay

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The day after the surgery, when I guess they realized nothing incredibly serious would happen, I was moved into a private room with a roommate.  I remained there another full 2 days.  I know I was in incredible pain, but I will never forget and always worship my day nurse.  She is not only my favorite nurse, but one of my favorite people!  God, did she help me get through those awful days.

The pain/pressure wasn’t controlled too well and I was purely miserable.  The body forgets the actual feeling of pain, but we remember it happened.  To add to that pain, my fear of nighttime continued.  As a blessing, my night nurse would walk the halls with me, once I could walk of course, while we talked about our lives, our relationships, work, what-have-you.  She is also on the list of top nurses.

A very tough moment was the first time they got me out of bed.  Again, I was an incredibly active person when this all happened.  It was insane to me that the simple act of getting my legs over the edge of the bed to stand was so hard, even though “hard” really can’t describe it.  I began to cry, saying, “I can’t do this.”  I felt so defeated by all of this.  What a blessing I had a wonderful nurse’s assistant who encouraged me saying, “I wouldn’t let you do this if I thought you couldn’t.”  So, with that, I garnered my strength and stood up.  I can frankly say, it was one of the greatest feelings and accomplishments of my life, and I’ve been pretty damn successful in everything I’ve done.

And so, with time and fantastic physical therapists, I was able to sit in a chair.  I graduated to using my IV stand to make it to the bathroom.  Soon after, I began to walk the halls although I couldn’t do the entire perimeter yet.  That came soon though.  During that time, I colored a lot.  I colored a beautiful cloth flag-type thing – I don’t know exactly what to call it – filled with butterflies.  I hung it on my IV stand, and walked and walked down those halls.  I remember people smiling as they passed by me.  I hope that picture of butterflies gave them some comfort and a tiny bit of happiness.  It did for me at least.

My hospital has a recreation center full of games, arts and crafts, books, painting materials, etc.  It’s a bit cheesy, but its such a valuable asset for patients.  It also has an outdoor patio.  Frankly, it’s a gift.  After being cooped up in a hospital bed, just minutes of sun and fresh air feels miraculous.  However, the first time I was wheeled onto that patio, I had a complete breakdown.  I think the joy of that little bit of freedom overcame me and it hit me like a ton of bricks all that I’d just been through.  I cried and cried until I asked to go back to my room.  Thankfully, I was able to pull myself together to eventually go back there.

Probably most important to my recovery was my attitude.  I didn’t want to stay in that awful bed.  I wanted to sit up.  I wanted to walk.  I wanted to get the hell out of there!  Sadly, my roommate did not have that same motivation and complained quite a bit when the staff tried to get her up.  Sometimes, she outright refused.  Her nurses would also tell her to call them before she ate anything because apparently she had diabetes or at least very high blood sugar.  She never listened.  In fact, her family would sneak her heavy, unhealthy food.  I also overheard that when she would actually be released, she would be admitted to a rehab facility.  Honestly, I felt damn lucky I wasn’t in that situation, or possessed her overall attitude.  I don’t blame her whatsoever.  We all handle cancer, and especially brain surgery, in our own way.  I believe it’s one of the most difficult experiences in the world!  I was just different.

Another overwhelming moment came when occupational therapy (OT) arrived.  The therapist asked me to draw a clock.  I just couldn’t.  My mind wouldn’t compute what a clock was and particularly, how to draw it.  I was asked to repeat several words.  Again, I couldn’t.  I graduated every school with honors, survived law school, passed two bar exams, yet I couldn’t do things kindergarteners learned.  However, the therapist determined I actually wouldn’t need OT.  She was sure it would all come back because frankly, I was fully communicating and was basically myself.  (Even now though, I have a hard time with that damn clock!)

My recovery progressed and every time the doctors evaluated me, I was on the right track.  Despite it all, I was actually doing great.  Remarkably well, in fact.  So, after the day of the surgery and 2 full days afterward, I was ready to be released that 3rd day.

Post-Op and the Dreaded Neuro-Observation Area

Post-Op

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I woke up in the post-op room, but I don’t remember feeling any pain whatsoever.  Frankly, I felt high as a kite!  Those were some gooood meds!  My whole family was shocked because I was wide awake, cracking jokes and acting as though everything was fine.  My surgeon came back to see me and I continued to joke telling him, “I’ve had worse hangovers!”  (My relationship with my neurosurgeon has always been light and sarcastic, which I love)

The nurse eventually told my family I needed to rest and once they left, I don’t remember much of that post-op room except for feeling strangely comfortable there.  (Again, they were some gooood meds!)

Post-Op Neuro-Observation

It was when they moved me to the neuro-observation room that hell broke loose.  The meds began to ware off.  I could feel the intense pressure of the awful gauze turban.  (I HATE that thing)  It was also nighttime.  I had a horrible fear of nighttime/bedtime suffering from years and years of insomnia.  I also had new nurses, who I particularly didn’t like much.  It was dark in there.  I was closed off in my own little section, curtained between three other patients who themselves had just survived brain surgery.  It was not a pleasant space.

The worst came when they advised I would have to undergo a post-op MRI.  It was then I suffered the first panic attack of my life.  I’ll be honest.  Looking back, the nurse and the nurse’s assistant did not handle it well.  The nurse said in a slightly obnoxious tone, “She’s having some sort of panic attack.”  The nurse’s assistant, a very large and aggressive woman, held me down.  Kindly, they at least IVed some meds and I did calm down.

Thankfully, and because my neurosurgeon is A-mazing, there was a total resection of the tumor.  I was technically “cancer free” which is a term I still don’t apply to myself even now.

Although I understand it and accept it now through therapy, my husband refused to stay with me that night.  Was it the best, kindest thing to do?  No.  Did he handle it well?  No.  However, I forgive him.  It was all just too overwhelming for us.

So, after he left, the second panic attack of my life came on.  I don’t remember much of it or how the nurse handled that one, but I know it happened.  Maybe I’ve blocked it out, for good reason.

Eventually, it came time to leave that dreaded area.  I hate that I’ve returned there two more times since.

Operation Day and the Surgery

Operation Day!

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I vaguely remember waking up that morning, getting to the hospital and walking onto the surgical reception floor.  I also vaguely remember, practically whispering, “I am here for surgery.”  I waited in the reception area with my husband and parents before they called me back.  My mother would not sit still.  So, I was the one who kept having to calm her down, never mind that I was the one facing surgery.

I was the first scheduled case, so there wasn’t too much time before they called my name.  I walked into a whole new world.  The pre-op room was huge with lines of curtained-off beds.  Could all of these people seriously be going into surgery this morning?  I felt very lucky to have a nurse from Ireland.  It led to easy-going conversation about what parts of Ireland we were all from, and what brought us all to the States.  It helped me forget just a bit where I was and what I was facing.  However, I stayed very quiet.

At that point, I was still scared of needles and IVs (oh, how times change!).  So, they were not fun.  The anesthesiologist came back to talk to me.  He was also comforting and calmed me as best he could.  However, when the moment came to send me into the operating room, I completely and utterly lost it.  I was hysterically crying and found it hard to breathe.  The nurse immediately told the anesthesiologist that they needed to IV some meds ASAP.  It probably wasn’t a good idea to send a patient into the operating room like that.

The meds did work fast, thankfully.  However, I remember being wheeled down the hall and into the vortex of the operating room.  I could hear the MRI machine, as it was yet a noise I was used to – oh, that would come with time.  I stared up at all of the fluorescent lights.  I saw numerous people hurriedly walking around in scrubs.  Then, I saw the anesthesiologist looking down on me.  He asked me to start counting, but I think I got to about the third number before I lost consciousness.

The Surgery

Obviously, I remember nothing of the actual surgery.  That’s surely a blessing, as I’ve heard some patients actually do recall slight moments.  As far as I understand, they used a twilight anesthesia so that they could test my neurological functions with the MRI.  I vaguely remember it coming up, but I can’t confirm that at this moment, nor do I really want to.

So, I underwent a 3-hour craniotomy, defined as “a surgical operation in which a bone flap is temporarily removed from the skull to access the brain.”  The entire tumor was removed, referred to as “full resection.”  A titanium plate was placed in the area and I was then all stitched up.  They placed an awful, horrible gauze turban around my head to prevent swelling.  Amazingly, just a line of hair was shaved, so it was barely noticeable once the turban was removed.  (Getting that turban removed after 3 full days was an incredible physical and mental release).  Then it was off to the post-op recovery room, where I would remain for several hours.    

The Night Before Surgery

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The Night Before

Knowing I was heading into possible, life-threatening surgery the next day, my friends and family were quite a mess.  I found myself trying to manage them, as opposed to dealing with my own worries.  However, one of the most beautiful moments was when a close friend came over.  As she was leaving, she handed me a frame with a photo of our group of girlfriends from our recent trip to the Caribbean celebrating my birthday.  She teared up, but she spoke the most simple, wonderful words, “We love you.”

That night, I decided to google information on brain surgery.  I had been soooo good at avoiding Google, but I couldn’t help myself that night.  I was just too incredibly frightened of the unknown.   I came across some disturbing photos of actual surgery.  Oh no!  I was not going there!  However, I found a blog (I wish I could remember what it was) of a young woman, who detailed her experiences leading up to and after her surgery.  It gave me so much comfort, so I am truly thankful for that little indiscretion from my google ban.

I really don’t know whether I was simply numb to the fact that I was facing surgery, or all of the meds, or just simply blocking it all out, but I wasn’t actually that nervous once it came time to go to sleep.  I recall my husband commenting how calm I seemed.  Who knows?  The mind is a powerful thing after all.  I popped a sleeping pill and slept until that horrid alarm went off sometime around 4:00 a.m.  No turning back.  The time had come.

 

So, Freddy Krueger And I Walk Into A Bar…

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It’s officially a week and a half since my 12-hour brain surgery/plastic surgery/infectious disease surgery/whatever it is that just happened to me.

I know that there will be several (okay A LOT) of posts that will cover what has happened over the last few weeks, but in a simple, non-medically trained nutshell… all of my radiation treatments caused my brain cells to die, which then caused the skin cells around my surgical/radiation area to breakdown, causing a serious infection that led to my titanium plate being exposed.  Enter an infectious disease team, a plastic surgery team and my established neurosurgery team…

I was advised that the infection would obviously have to be surgically cleared out, that my plate may or may not have to be removed, and that a portion of my stomach would have to be taken to create a new skin flap to cover the area.  Little did I know that I would wake up with my stomach now making up just about half of my head, as well as a giant incision starting from the top of my chest down my abdomen.  Oh, and my bellybutton is also now about 6 inches off from where it was just a few weeks ago.

So, I feel like Freddy Krueger and I walked into a bar and well, whatever happened, he clearly won.

I am thankful beyond words that I am alive, that I am recovering remarkably well and that I am even able to write this post, but… this time, the vanity thing is tough.

I feel like a monster.  While I know rationally, it will get better – the swelling will reduce, the bruising will fade, etc. – it’s just really, really hard this go around.

With my first surgery, you wouldn’t have known I’d even had surgery.  My hair only began to fall out a few months later due to radiation.  I thought that was hard.  However, I got a fantastic hairpiece (clip-on, not even a full wig) and absolutely no one could tell I had a bald patch hiding underneath.

Time went by and my hair started to grow back enough that I didn’t even need the hairpiece.  I only needed to style my hair the right way and all was okay.  I even left the hairpiece hidden in a drawer to get knotted and matted, thinking I really wouldn’t need it again.  How naive!

So, along came the second surgery and more hair had to be shaved down, but honestly, it wasn’t too bad.  I wasn’t going to cry over it.  Yet, once again, radiation came around.  I was actually away on my First Descents trip when my hair began falling out in huge clumps.  I stood in the bathroom at our camp site just crying while running my fingers through my hair as it immediately fell out.  Thankfully, being on a trip with cancer survivors, they all understood my hysterics.  Due to the high-dose radiation, this time my scalp looked red and severely burned (“angry” as one person perfectly described it).  It looked worse than before, but by the time it was all said and done, I wiped the dust off the hairpiece and adjusted to it all.  I also continued to rock what I like to call “the crazy bun.”  It was disappointing, sure, but manageable.

But now…since ya know, my scalp is significantly made up of my stomach, the hair will never ever grow back and it’s definitely not just a bald spot either.  (As a darkly humourous aside, my scalp now has freckles that were formerly members of my abs).  Sure, they say the swelling will go down too.  However, it’s really hard to imagine my head ever looking semi-normal or symmetrical.  There are sutures everywhere and because the plastic’s team had to connect artieries behind my ear, there is yet another incision there.

I’ve been dealing with the whole bald spot/scalp/hair issue for 2 years now.  I get it.  I had brain cancer.  I can’t expect that my head would look compleletly untouched.  However, I was not prepared for the additional disaster area of my chest/abdomen.  Again, I had brain cancer.  This wasn’t supposed to involve abdominal surgery with permanent scarring down the front of my body.  That wasn’t in the manual!

My stomach is also so swollen that I look about 10-months pregnant.  I am a very petite person.  It’s not a cute look.  In being such an intensly active person, my core was always so strong.  Now, I can’t stand up straight because of the sutures and the swelling.  I hobble around like an 80-year-old woman.

I hate that my poor husband has to look at me this way.  He is beyond amazing and justifyably tells me I’m being crazy.  He is not afraid to look at me, but I am.

I feel petty even complaining about these things.  Big picture – I’m alive!  So, so many brain cancer patients are not as fortunate.  Also, I’m sitting in my own home, on my couch, next to my incredible husband and my adorable pup.  I am not in the hospital.  I am not in a rehab facility trying to fight serious neurologic side effects.

I still do have everything.  I just wish I had never walked into that bar with Freddy a few weeks ago.  I should’ve just stayed the hell home.

 

 

 

Things can always be worse

 

I don’t expect this to be a long post, or even entirely sensical (I’m just a week out of surgery, so be kind).  My last post described my upcoming, essentially emergent surgery.  So, so much has happened in almost 2 weeks from then.

After several days in the hospital, waiting to determine when the surgery would be scheduled, we finally came to the conclusion that it would all go down Friday, May 6th.  As we suspected, the surgery would not be your “typical” brain surgery.  This surgery would now involve the plastic surgery team cutting down my abdomen and taking a significant amount of skin to create a flap over the previous surgical areas, which were now destroyed by the radiation and infection.  Although we hoped for a quicker surgery, realistically, it would be about 12-hours if all went well.

On the bright side of all of this, my neurosurgeon was confident that there would be absolutely no neurological side effects.  He described this procedure as a “plumbing job”to get rid of the infection, to prepare the flap and connect it properly so that it functioned/survived as living skin.  I don’t pretend to understand it all though…

Knowing my recovery time would be significant, me, my neurosurgery team, the plastic surgery team and the infectious disease team all agreed I could go home for just a night to relax and sleep in my own bed before an extended post-surgical stay. Little did we all know what a terrible idea that would be.

At home, I packed my bag for the hospital.  I took a LONG shower knowing it would be quite a while before I had a decent one again.  I did my best to straighten up the apartment into some kind of order.  I went to bed scared, but I was handling it.

At some point in the middle of the night, I shot up from a dead sleep.  My immediate thought, “I’m having a seizure.”  I knew it right away.  I could feel the strange, electrical sensations in my left leg, traveling up my side, into my left hand and then into my face.  I was able to at least wake up my husband and direct him to give me my medication and call 911.  Yet, he had never seen this happen.  He was honestly in shock and wasn’t truly able to process all of this.

Then came the intense, uncontrollable shaking and twitching, the complete and utter loss of power over my own body.  I heard my doctor’s voice telling me that despite it all, if a seizure ever came on, I’d have to do my best to stay calm.  So, while I had no control whatsoever of my body, my mind was functional enough to keep telling myself to stay calm, conscious and continuously breathing.  Unfortunately, I then lost all control to speak.  I was snorting and drooling.  I was convinced I was gone.

I frankly don’t remember it all settling down.  However, when it did, I had absolutely no use of my left side.  I was paralyzed.  I kept trying to send signals to my foot and hand, “Move, just move”, but nothing…My left hand was basically clawed and I couldn’t straighten any of my fingers.  My left side just felt dead.  Hundreds of things flooded my head.  Would I ever walk again?  Would I have to spend weeks in a physical rehab center?  What about my surgery?  What if this happened during surgery?

By now, the police and EMTs were in the mess of my bedroom.  I had regained the ability to speak and thankfully, the EMTs had good senses of humor.  I began apologizing about the state of our apartment, while they laughed and told me, “You ain’t seen nothing.”  They helped keep my calm, although my husband was still an absolute mess.

At some point, I started to regain movement and sensation in my left side.  So, now it was time to once again trek to the hospital I had only left hours ago.  All I kept thinking was that I should’ve never gone home.  I shouldn’t have been so selfish to have pushed to leave.  Here I was, beating myself up after a major, possibly life-altering seizure.

Now, I was being wheeled back into the UCC.  God knows what other catastrophe awaited.  As if it wasn’t enough that I was scheduled for major, complex, emergent brain/plastic surgery in just hours…now I had to face this seizure too.

I guess things can always be worse.