I think I can

Have you ever had to start an exercise regime or return to one after a break and found yourself lacking the motivation or inclination to do it? I had a horrible head cold last week and it had me on the couch for a good number of days and feeling sick for a good number more afterwards. In the lead up to this winter bug, I had been exercising nearly every day and was feeling great for it but then I got sick and the momentum broke.

Even after all my years of working at physical recoveries and developing a will to exercise, I still find myself each morning this past week wondering if today will be the day I get back into it – but I haven’t, despite the guilt inspiring self-talk and you know what, that’s normal.

Us humans are such creatures of habit yet we are also highly adaptable, we wouldn’t exist as a species if we were not but some habits (usually the healthiest ones) are harder to get back on track than others after a disruption of our routine.

Despite knowing all the benefits of returning to exercising, I have simply not been ready and thankfully after years of practice, I no longer have a melt-down thinking it’s the end of the world because I’m obviously NEVER going to exercise again because I’m too weak-willed. I am what I like to call a recovering perfectionist and life used to be quite black and white to my mind. I was, as my husband liked to say, an “all or nothing kinda girl”.

So if you also find yourself being internally berated, please try to breathe and take stock. You can do it; it just might take having a plan of attack rather than simply hoping you wake up one day with your exercise-will restored (or newly created).

As I have thought about my current break from exercise, I have tuned in to hear what my body has to say and initially, I was too tired after illness to jump straight back in and now after a longer break I am beginning to experience an increase in physical pain and discomfort. In the past, I let this pain grow to the point where I am spending so much time thinking about it and treating it, that I realise I need to start exercising again so it all settles back down and isn’t a huge part of everyday.

In more recent times, I have learnt to anticipate this ridiculous dance and come at it differently. If you find that you are bemoaning the fact that you haven’t exercised (even just internally) try to catch yourself at that moment and ask yourself, “What can I do now for the next 5 minutes that will count as exercise?” That may not sound like much but if it gets you up off the bench (or couch as it may be), that’s a good thing.

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The last couple of days I began with stretching and although it didn’t take long I felt better in my body and it shut down the nagging negative voice in my head, allowing me to feel pleased that I had at last done something. Yesterday as I was feeling more energetic, I added in one set each of my lower limb rehab exercises. Today I actually got myself to the basement (my exercise space) and did a series of stretching and strengthening exercises. So now when I think about this week I can honestly say I have started back and know I will continue to build back up to my pre-illness levels of exercise.

Obviously for fitter people you can start with a longer exercise interval to get you started but for anyone recovering from illness or injury, you start where you can, be it seated arm and leg exercises, walking laps of your home, stretching, mobilising your joints, climbing the stairs a couple of extra times, or enjoy a stroll in the fresh air. Any movement is better than none. Taken a day and then a week at a time, with realistic incremental increases, you will find yourself developing an exercise routine that suits you, a routine you can be proud of.

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Rehab Reverberation

I’ve seen such an improvement in my ability to exercise in the last few months and at six and a half months post-op; I’m feeling remarkably able bodied. The comparison between how I felt after the first craniotomy and this one is telling and it is only now that I truly appreciate how unwell I was for the two years following the first surgery in 2014. I had been reduced to managing my entire life around debilitating head pain and migraines with little relief in sight. Every time I attempted to exercise, I found I could only manage short (10 minutes) sessions and it is impossible to build yourself up with so little exercise tolerance. I would jump on the treadmill and despite not going at it too hard, my shoulder and neck muscles would tighten then pull on my jaw and scalp muscles until the sore spots on my skull (where the metal brackets and screws were) became aggravated, triggering a migraine that would knock me out for up to three days. It got to the point where just thinking about exercising became demoralising, not a good thing for anyone, yet alone someone trying to regain physical strength and function.

Since having the metal removed from my skull, that cycle has mercifully been broken and I have found myself willing and able to exercise again.

So it is that I recently had a review with my rehabilitation physical therapist (that’s what they call them here in the US; at home they are called physiotherapists).   I have been working on strengthening my legs and getting all my muscles groups switching on and working properly. This takes a while as the first few weeks of doing the specified exercises, you are just reconnecting your brain and the muscles and reminding them of how to work, eventually they start to switch on at the right time and then the exercises work on strength and coordination. It’s a process I have been through a few too many times for one lifetime but it has taught me to have patience with the process.

I have also worked on my overall fitness as after the stroke and now two brain surgeries close together, I have struggled to re-achieve cardio fitness, a fact my resting heartbeat has screamed for years, as it never drops under 90 beats per minute (unless I’m meditating).  Fitness has been a much-cherished goal but it has eluded me for a long, long time and I had, in fact, begun to give up hope of ever achieving it. Due to the physical deficits inflicted by the stroke and then brain surgery, I have to work ever day continuing to exercise and practice motor skills I initially lost but have regained. If I stop, it doesn’t take long for the deficits to worsen.

I am nine years out from a brain stem stroke (basal ganglia) and have worked harder than I ever imagined I could to regain as much function as possible, to the point now that on my good days even experienced Neurologists have difficulty picking the signs (my ‘tells’ I call them); those sneaky little weaknesses I can’t conceal. Add two spinal injuries (lumbar) and surgeries and really, it’s a miracle I can even walk.  What can I say? I’m stubborn. I’ve also experienced Jason’s idea of motor- sports-racing wheelchair pushing and I am not doing it again!

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At the recent rehabilitation review, I was pleasantly surprised to see my therapist both impressed and a little shocked at some of my achievements. Okay, so was I but it’s what I’ve been working so hard at for months. I obediently reported my status with the leg exercises I’ve been doing and the exciting fact that I have dramatically increased my treadmill speed, added an incline and am routinely doing 30 minutes a day.   So it was straight into the walking speed test to judge the results of this effort.   Whilst only a short timed walk from one side of the gym to the other at the fastest but safest speed I could manage, the improvement was noticeable immediately. As the therapist compared my new time to the old and looked up the average speed per age numbers, she turned to me with surprise on her face, and said, “You have increased your walking speed significantly and just walked at the average speed for your age group”.  I haven’t been able to do that in decades!   She kindly added, “Given all you have been through, achieving that is remarkable and a sign of the effort you’re putting in”.

I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch emotionally the past two months but hearing this was like a balm for my worries. Sitting perched on the edge of an exercise table, I felt myself sit a little straighter, a grin slowly worked its way onto my face. We sat, looking at one another for a moment, a sense of shared camaraderie and pride in these achievements; then it was onto the rest of the review. That’s the cycle of rehab: test, find the weaknesses, set exercises, do exercises, review, momentarily celebrate any improvement, and then repeat with more challenging tests and exercises. Victory is often times a very short-lived thing in the rehab gym but gee it feels good.

A Blow To The Senses

** This post was originally scribbled in late September 2016.

I recently discovered I have no sense of smell. Weird, I know, how could I not have noticed? I knew in hospital my sense of taste was off as nothing tasted quite right and I had a constant taste of pepper on my tongue. This persisted for weeks but I have now, slowly, begun to differentiate some flavours. Whilst it makes tasting what I cook somewhat risky, thankfully, I can still taste chocolate, so it’s not a complete disaster.

As to discovering the loss of my smell-ability, that came whilst mum and I were taking a stroll outside and spotted a bush resembling lavender. I mentioned that there was a plant here that looks like lavender but isn’t. Reaching over I ran the flowers through my hand to capture their bouquet, sniffed my hand and stated there was no smell and it mustn’t be lavender. Mother, being ever so believing, reached over for her own test, turned to me with a quizzical face, offering her hand to me, saying, “Yes, it is lavender”.

Confusion ran through me as I ran my hand over the flowers and tried again, expecting to smell lavender this time, thinking that somehow I must not have been paying attention the first time but again, I could smell nothing.

Resuming our walk, I tried to make sense of it. I knew what the flowers should smell like but nothing registered in my brain when I tried to smell them, it was as though there was a blank in place of scent.

Upon returning home, we began a sniff-athon, testing my nose against a range of smells; we tried perfume, my favourite incense, and coffee grounds, all with strong and easily recognisable aromas, yet nothing registered for me.

Concerned, I contacted the lead Nurse Practitioner (NP) of the surgeon’s team to ask how long I should expect it to last. After consulting with my surgeon, she informed me it is unlikely to recover; that’s right, unlikely.

As the realisation of this information sinks in, I am brimming with sadness and a sense of capitulation. Where’s the bloody white flag?

My conversation with the NP went like this:

Me:

“You may recall that I lost my sense of taste after the op, whilst that has improved slightly, I have realised I also lost my sense of smell. Anyway, I figured this is probably one of those things that should resolve over time but wanted to check.  I mean whilst I don’t mind having to pass on the job of checking if food is off by sniffing it, it is impacting me.” Note my complete lack of understanding as to what had occurred.

Nurse Practitioner:

“I wanted (surgeon’s) opinion too. Seems unlikely that it will improve, but need to give it up to 18-24 months to be certain.”

Me:

“I find myself shocked at the idea that the loss of smell and changed sense of taste may be permanent.  I understand that with time things may improve as I’ve been through that with my stroke deficits.  I guess the question I have now is, how did this happen?

Nurse Practitioner:

…“Anytime you manipulate the olfactory bulb (on the under surface of the frontal lobe) you can loose sense of smell from that side; there is one on the under surface of each frontal lobe. So if you lost the right one from the previous surgery, you had the other one that still worked. When we went in on the other side, that manipulation may have taken out the other one, causing loss of smell as the other one was already gone.  These are such sensitive structures…I know it’s not what you want to hear.”

The idea of having brain surgery is daunting, due largely to the possible complications. I know that when the doctors rattle off the standard list – bleeding, stroke, loss of limb function, change of personality, death, I generally can’t be objective about it. The death part doesn’t worry me anywhere as much as possible stroke and brain injury, as having had a stroke, I have an intimate understanding of what that means and it ain’t much fun; but sign the consent forms I do and trust to the steady hands of my surgeons, knowing there are no guarantees.

With each of my craniotomies, there have been unexpected outcomes and I’ve worked really hard to deal with that, manage around new limitations as best I can and investigate therapies that may offer some help. This time despite a very experienced surgeon, my left olfactory bulb was damaged perhaps irreversibly (and with hindsight, I now also know the first surgeon damaged the right one). With it goes my ability to smell anything) including burning toast, gas leaks or food of any kind) and with smell affected, so is my ability to taste. It makes flavour checking something I’m cooking a huge challenge and knowing if food is spoiled – well, that’s a whole other adventure!

I live in hope that my brain will heal and that little bulb will one day soon start to fire up and send out it’s oh, so important signals. It is with this vehement hope in mind, that has me continuing to sniff things, attempting to keep the pathways between nose and brain working.

It may seem to be a trivial sense to lose but for me it has been deeply upsetting. As someone for whom cooking, baking and eating good food bring enormous pleasure, it has impacted the very heart of me. My place of solace has always been the kitchen and now half the picture is missing.

 

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Imagine  not being able to smell or taste your favourite foods.

Honesty and Fear

I feel as though I haven’t been entirely honest about my recovery and it bothers me, which is a bit odd because all of us choose what information, we share about ourselves, particularly when it comes to something personal and scary like a health crisis.

The moment I decided to write a blog about my first brain surgery, I opened the door and invited friends, family and even strangers into my home, life and mind. That’s the thing about blogging, when your topic is your own health and some crises you’re facing, the writing is naturally going to be personal or it won’t be worth reading for anyone; I certainly found it was the only way I could write, exposing the truth be that good or bad.

This time around, I haven’t had the courage or perhaps that’s being a bit hard on myself – I honestly don’t know if my inability (or unwillingness) to write and share what I’ve been living is because I’m afraid to sound weak in front of people who have come to expect bravery of me or if the lack of words stems indeed from changes in my brain resulting from this last surgery.

Out The Other Side

Firstly let me start with the reassurance that I am alive and well after my brain surgery. I am very conscious that it is now past the eight week mark and I am yet to write anything about it. I have been pondering how easy it was to write after the first operation compared to this time and it seems the main difference is pain management. I was in loads of pain last time and as many of you will understand, pain can serve well as a writer’s motivation. In all seriousness, the surgery went very well but I have been so high on pain medications that most tasks of ordinary life have been beyond me. I also find myself living with profound tiredness, leaving my day’s routine to mostly sleeping, couch rest and general zombie-like house wandering. Living the dream!

Fortunately, I have in the past week or so been able to reduce the number of lovely drugs needed to tame the pain so am beginning to have a few lucid moments. Now being one of them.

So a quick update; the surgeon was very pleased with how his work went; he was able to clip the original aneurysm and the second small one from the left hand side of my skull. img_4894He also reopened the incision from the previous surgery (right side), cleaned it up a bit, removed the hardware (metal brackets and screws) left to secure the skull flap whilst it healed and filled in a depression (possibly caused by muscle atrophy since the surgery) with bone cement.

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I had asked if he could do a facelift whilst he was at it, but alas, no. By removing the metal, we are hoping for a reduction in migraines, as it is the medical opinion here that they were likely a trigger. Unlike my doctor in Australia whose sage words were, “The migraines might just be the new you after surgery”. End of advice!

I can report several improvements already in this area, with the constant jaw pain I have had since the first surgery vanishing. Additionally, the tender spots where the metal was are no longer sore. Whilst I am still experiencing localised pain at the incision, I am hopeful that as it heals, there will be further improvement.

 

Now immediately after this op, I was apparently very ill upon waking and as my beloved and devoted husband tells me, “You were puking for hours”.   Thankfully I was so out of it I have absolutely no memory of this or of being in any pain for my entire six-day hospital stay. There are plenty of other things I also don’t remember but I’ll save that for later.

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I had a slightly longer than expected stay in hospital, largely due to having several strange episodes which were initially suspected strokes. They were not, happily, thankfully, get down on my knees and thank all deities, not. During these episodes my speech became garbled or I ceased being able to get my words out, then as speech returned, it was painfully slow and I had difficulty forming words. This is called aphasia and apraxia. I experienced something similar after my stroke in 2007 but not with the same intensity.

The first two times I had an episode, the staff called a Stroke Code, which involved a team of health professionals rushing to my room, asking loads of questions, whilst taking blood, physically examining me, ordering tests and rushing me to Imaging. You may think that sounds awful, perhaps even a little frightening, and yes, had I not been stoned out of my head on pain medications, it might have been. In less than 30 minutes, I was assessed, put through the CAT scan and returned to my room, I also had an MRI. This hospital takes the possibility of stroke seriously, as I wish all hospitals would.

img_4817The initial diagnoses was that swelling near the speech centre of my brain was causing seizures, so I was then connected to an EEG machine overnight to see if they could ‘capture’ evidence of one. I did have an episode whilst hooked up but the EEG didn’t capture anything. This meant it was either migraine related or the seizure activity was too deep within my brain for the EEG to detect; (I know, I know, my head’s too dense for the machine to penetrate). As a precaution I am on anti-seizure medications for a few months. As for the other possible explanation of migraine – the surgery may have set off a new type of migraine symptom for me. I have continued to have a couple of episodes a week since coming home but we are hopeful it will resolve itself as I heal and my brain stops having a tantrum at being interfered with. I see my Neurologist this week when I am sure this will be discussed.

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Jason has been super busy looking after me, managing my medications routine and generally keeping me on track. My mum has come over from Australia to help out and allow Jason to return to work. We were kept well fed by our community here using the Meal-Train website, which worked perfectly for our needs. My incisions are healing well, my pain is slowly lessening and I am beginning to do more. Both the surgery and recovery this time are 100 times better than my previous experience.

All in all, I received excellent care from the team at University of Colorado Hospital and much love and support from our families and friends.  I am extremely thankful.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

I have gone over and over it in my head and simply cannot find a clever way of saying this or even a way to soften the blow (so to speak) but it turns out I need to have a second brain surgery.

Bugger (plus a string of expletives, if you are anything like me).

Bear with me whilst I explain how this has come to be.

In Jan 2015, I had my post-operative cerebral angiogram and my surgeon told me (over the phone) that a tiny (1mm) weak spot had pushed out near the clipped aneurysm and that whilst it wasn’t a concern, it would need to be monitored.  When I met with her next, I asked her to show me where the new weak spot was and like all surgeons she drew a simplistic representation of the artery, the clipped aneurysm and this new small bulge.  On the drawing, the new bulge was on the opposite side of the artery to the clipped aneurysm and she explained that treating the aneurysm altered the blood flow in that area and this can sometimes lead to other weak spots showing up.   Unexpected but okay; in effect this left me with two small aneurysm that still required annual review.

Having moved to Denver in the United States in August, I had to establish a new cadre of health professionals to manage my ongoing care and just before Christmas last, I saw a Neurosurgeon for my first review.  Before I could meet with him, I needed another brain scan.   Once at the appointment he informed me that my Australian surgeon missed part of the original aneurysm with the clip.  Frickin’ awesome says I.  The imaging shows it may be as much as half the original aneurysm.

Now you might be thinking how did my Australian surgeon miss seeing that on my post-operative scan.  The answer is that she didn’t.  We have since gained access to the report of this scan where it states that as much as half of the aneurysm remained unclipped.   She lied to me.  It’s that simple.  She lied knowing I was coming to the states, where they would see it and deal with it.

Every time I think I have worked through my anger about this, it seems to rise up again, out of the pit of my stomach, bitter and all consuming.

So there Jason and I are, sitting in the doctors office after all of four months in Denver, expecting to be told nothing more than “Everything’s fine, see you in 12 months” but no, the doctor starts talking about surgery to fix the original aneurysm and “whilst he’s in there” clip the other small one.  As he detailed the need to go in from the other side to the previous surgery, my mind was racing.  I recall looking at Jason with nothing less than shock on my face only to see similar signs upon his.

For those of you whom have never met my husband, this is a man whom upon watching a snake rise up out of the umbrella hole of our table one night on our honeymoon, slowly raised a single eyebrow in response!  For me to see shock on his face meant there was a serious disturbance in the force that day.

Thankfully all my experience with receiving unpleasant health news kicked in and I found myself able to begin asking questions.  I managed to explain to the doctor that I was nearly two years out from the first brain surgery and was still dealing with the consequence of that – double vision, head pain from the metal and seemingly unrelenting migraines.  Thankfully, he heard my concern and disbelief and stopped talking.  He gently felt my old surgical site and with a deftness of hand that I still find reassuring assessed the procedure I had undergone, explained why poorly placed metal screws and brackets were likely causing me problems and then explained how he doesn’t use that procedure any more, having developed his own, less physically traumatic approach.  His procedure requires a smaller skull hole, substantially less cutting of the jaw muscle (which means less of my face peeled away from my skull and reattached) and fewer metal brackets externally.  He also volunteered to remove as much of the metal in my head from the last operation as he can.  At a follow up consult, both the surgeon and his resident felt my head looking for these brackets and were surprised that all of them were so exposed, as apparently, here, they bury the metal as deeply as they can under muscle so it can’t be felt from the surface.  All of the metal in my skull can be felt easily and it continues to be tender to the touch two years out.  Grrrr.

Whilst all his talk of a better surgical technique was nice, Jason and I still left the appointment largely in shock.  Neither of us was expecting to hear that I needed more surgery, let alone due to my previous surgeon’s incompetence!

If I’m honest after a couple of days pondered his suggestion, I found myself shelving it, in what I now recognise as denial.  I simply could not face even the thought of going through the surgery again.  I have had such a difficult recovery, experienced so much pain, and had been ignored by my Australian surgeon who refused point blank to see any connection between the surgery and my ongoing issues.  As much as I try to stay upbeat, managing things as they come, I have suffered greatly these past two years and honestly, could not find it within myself to do it again.  My resilience reserves are frankly depleted.

After some blissful self-imposed ignorance, I decided I needed a second opinion, and met with another Neurosurgeon, one specialising in vascular aneurysm treatment (non-surgical) but can do clipping as well.  After a detailed discussion of the options, including not doing anything right now, he agreed with the first doctor that surgery was the best treatment option and it was warranted sooner rather than later.   Due to me still being young (ish), they know over time the aneurysm will continue to grow and waiting just invites the opportunity for a brain bleed to occur.  We were very somber walking out of this appointment.

It was at this point that I collapsed in upon myself emotionally.  Jason seeing my misery, wisely reached out to the counselors provided via his employer and I grudgingly met with one of their Psychologist. I won’t detail everything we went through but suffice to say, she validated my experience and my grief and basically gave me permission to stay in my sadness and anger for a while in order to process it.  The thing about being the type of person, who pushes through difficulty and ‘bounces back’ from calamity, is you begin to expect an awful lot of yourself.  I took the time I needed to begin to come to terms with my fate.  It wasn’t easy and I am so grateful to Jason for being so gently with and kind to me during this time.  He gave me a safe place to be in the midst of my suffering.

After a while, I realised that in order to commit to surgery I needed more information.  I had to reassure myself that I would not have such a horrendous time.  My mind was full of all the poorly managed aspects of my post operative care last time; such as insufficient pain relief, being left vomiting for three days due to the pain, severe swelling and double vision, to name a few things.

We met with the first surgeon and a Resident, to go over everything and run a few (dozen) questions past him and eventually, grudgingly, agreed to schedule the surgery.  I go into hospital next month on Thursday July 21st.  Jason said my questioning of the surgeon was as though I was interviewing him for a job, and I guess I was.

On a couple of occasions, I had to provide context for my question as they looked at me as though I had sprouted a second head.  An example may be useful: With brain surgery it’s critical that they keep the patient’s blood pressure spot on, meaning there is enough blood circulating to keep the brain alive but its the minimum amount of blood flow they can achieve so that should there be a bleed during surgery, there is less blood flowing.  To monitor the BP this closely, they use arterial BP measuring which requires two very large needles to be inserted into the underside of the forearm into arteries.  It is a nasty procedure that results in some of the worst bruising I’ve ever had.   Just prior to going to theatre the anesthetist told me, he would put those needles in once I was unconscious.  That is standard practice.  Unfortunately, he was also a lying sack of s@i% and as soon as I was in position on the operating table, he grabbed my arm, slapped it vigorously and put the arterial needles in whilst I was wide-awake, no pre-op sedation, nothing, wide-awake.  It was excruciating and the pain was the last thing I experienced as they anesthetised me.  This may be why the brutality of that moment has stayed with me.

Back to the US, and I share this anecdote with my new doctor and as he and his resident exchanged glances, my surgeon reassured me that I would not be awake for that.  When we finally left him in peace, Jason commented that he thought they must think that medical care in Australia is barbaric.  Sadly, sometimes it is.

I’m happy to say that now for the most part I have moved through my sadness and fear.  We both still have moments where it all feels a bit too much but we have each other and now that we are reaching out and telling people, lots of moral support.  Being on the other side of the world away from everyone we know is adding its own stress.  That said our new friends here and work colleagues of Jason’s have already begun making sincere offers of assistance and his work’s admin team have been super helpful and are doing everything they can to support us.  One friend has set up a Meal Train web pigeon our behalf so people can volunteer to bring us a meal on a given day, which is reassuring in that I know I will get to see a vegetable occasionally in the first few weeks at home.  Also, my mum will be coming over shortly after the operation, once I’m home and need someone to help out.

Despite my reluctance to go through another craniotomy, I am very impressed with the surgeon here.  He is highly experienced and as mentioned earlier, has developed a less physically traumatic approach to the surgery.   He was very approachable and understanding of my concerns and from what we hear, is one of the best Neurosurgeons in the State, the guy other surgeons’ send their tricky cases to for care.  This very experienced doctor sat in front of me, for half an hour patiently answering every question I threw at him.  We are very optimistic of having a better outcome and easier recovery than last time.

 

Crappy Complications (a flashback to 2014)

I never intended to take a break from writing about my recovery but alas the events of the last three months of 2014, conspired to render me mute. I hope that anyone wondering as to my progress assumed I was distracted by a return to full health and was busy living my life. This was, unfortunately, not the case. I have no desire to document everything that befell me in the last three months of 2014 but would like to provide an accounting of that time; it is only reasonable to have an accurate record to reflect upon. Who am I kidding – it’s for catharsis!

So dear friends, readers and other neglected persons let me share with you the events that left me unable to rally a defense.

My last post in October 2014, (five months post-op) was about the early signs of full recovery and I genuinely felt on the threshold of improved quality of life, despite continuing painful headaches and funny (new) episodes of dizziness and passing out. To the latter, my GP assigned blame to Morphine, dropping my blood pressure too low, so that whenever I stood up I became faint. Once these episodes reached the point of me having blackouts several times a day and having to lie on the kitchen floor until my vision cleared and head stopped spinning, the GP agreed to cease the Morphine. He put me onto an increased dose of Tramadol, adding a slow release version morning and night in addition to fast acting four times a day.

My physical recovery had been continuing despite the ‘episodes’, albeit slower than it should have. Mid October I even baby-sat a friend’s three-year-old boy for half a day. Despite a very active few hours, I felt great and was really pleased at how well I’d managed (as well as said boy child surviving intact). Finger painting, decorating a robot helmet, being chased around the house by child wearing robot helmet, reading; all this was within my capabilities and it was marvelous.

The next day however, in the kitchen at home, I stood up after retrieving something from the fridge and my head spun, the world began to disappear as darkness clouded my vision and like so many unfortunate women in the movies, I swooned. I felt control of my limbs flee and wondered, as I begun to slide to the floor, if I could protect my head from any impact. Jason, also in the kitchen saw that I was not well and grabbed me around the waist, supporting me as my strength vanished. Each blink of my eyes showed a darkening room as I sagged, a dead weight in his arms. Blackness followed.

After only minutes, blurry vision was restored and Jason half dragged, half directed me to the lounge. I lay my face gratefully against the cushions, relaxing knowing it was safe now to succumb. Lying there, weakened, I became aware that my left arm was behaving oddly; bent forcefully at the elbow, tucked against my chest and fingers curled tightly. When it began to twitch in spasm, I felt a flicker of fear at the familiarity of these symptoms – exactly like when I had a stroke in 2007.

As quickly as the fear rose, I stamped my reaction down, seeing no good purpose in it. I did however mention the symptoms to Jason and we concluded it was just a response to the funny ‘episode’ I’d just had. We both know that anything that challenges me physically can see a return of the weakness on my left side. Later when I began moving about, I was disappointed to find I also had developed a pronounced limp, all the joints of my leg were locked up and my hip swung forward in an uncontrolled bowing movement. But again, we put it down to fatigue and went about our day.

We have talked about that day since and realised that the stroke of 2007, changed so much for us both, we have a new sense of ‘normal’. With brain injury so many things can impact brain and body functioning, a late night, too much noise, a head cold, over exercising; all this and so much more can strip me of my strength, coordination and endurance. A recurrence of weakness and fatigue is the new normal.

When the deficits had not resolved after a few days, I saw my doctor who upon physical assessment confirmed that I was presenting with hemiparesis (weakness or paralysis affecting one side of the body) and that my hip flexor in particular, was not switching on. His initial thoughts were that I had experienced a severe loss of blood pressure and had extended that by not fainting (laying down immediately) and may have triggered a vasospasm* in my brain. In short – I may have had another stroke.

He promptly sent me to the hospital Emergency Department (ED) with a letter requesting an urgent MRI. Alice Springs Hospital had only just installed an MRI machine in the previous six months and rumor had it that the waiting list was already quite long.

I waited three hours to be seen but once the doctors examined me and took my history, there was an increasing sense of urgency on their behalf. They contacted the Neurosurgery Unit at the Royal Adelaide Hospital who asked them to perform a CT Angiogram to ensure the aneurysm clip installed in May was still in place and, there were no brain bleeds. This was done and thankfully all was clear. I was however admitted to hospital as the doctors felt I still needed the MRI and access to rehabilitation services.

The following morning, as Jason arrived with a change of clothes for me, two staff appeared at the end of my bed and following a rushed introduction, my impression was that one was a doctor, the other a student doctor; the Saturday morning ‘B team’, a friend would later call them. They examined me, in a perfunctory manner, noted the CT was clear and advised I would not be having an MRI, as they felt the CT was sufficient. Granted, I was a tad sleep deprived but I recall thinking how only an MRI would clearly show the deep structures of the brain (such as) where my first stroke occured but okay.

They then inquired as to my walking stability and I informed them nothing had changed overnight. They had me walk for them; my glamorous hospital gown trailing upon the ground, comically oversized. I took four wobbly, slow steps and they stopped me; four steps, I kid you not. That was the extent of their walking and stability ‘assessment’.   For goodness sake, they couldn’t even see my legs in order to assess functioning. I wobbled back to the bed as the doctor announced in a dismissive tone, “Oh well, you don’t really need rehab do you, I mean you’ve had a stroke before so you know what to do”. “Yes, get the hell out of this hospital”, I thought as my eyebrows climbed their way towards my hairline.

I confirmed they were saying there would be no MRI or rehab support (the reasons I was admitted) and they left (without waiting to see if I would stay or go). My decision was a quick one; I was already feeling weaker from a day sitting around the hospital instead of doing as much as possible for myself at home. If there was to be no support or further tests, there was zero point in staying.

I returned home no better and without answers.

My physical weakness worsened and the rate of the episodes of passing out increased dramatically.  This state of affairs continued for some time and to be honest, I struggled to maintain my optimism, finding the idea of further brain problems emotional paralysing. Living with worsening episodes, we nicknamed ‘brown-outs’, slipping into near unconsciousness up to four times a day, with the only explanation being “something was going on in my brain” (as my GP put it). I became so unwell I stopped being able to do almost anything.

This was a difficult period for us and we largely kept things to ourselves as we simply had no idea what we were facing. My mind was filled with terror at the prospect of new brain damage or neurological deficits and my world contracted until I had to schedule my entire day around the recurring episodes. My mental health at the time deteriorated, and my physical recovery quickly went with it.

Then I had an episode in public and things escalated quickly. Whilst getting groceries with Jason at ‘Woolies’ one afternoon, I began to feel unwell, sounds and colours distorted, becoming harsher, crashing upon my mind like storm churned waves; thinking became difficult as dimness crept slowly into my peripheral vision. Feeling as though my mind was shutting down, I didn’t reach for Jason or utter a word. Backing slowly, groping blindly for purchase, I bumped into the shelves of the cleaning products isle and with a sense of self-protection used them to ease my body to the floor.

I lost touch with time and in the haze that was now my mind’s workings, there were no thoughts of embarrassment or concern, I merely waited the event out, some primal part of me knowing it would pass soon and I was safe, and that that was the only thing that mattered.

Slowly, I returned to the world around me, to see Jason looking down at me, asking if I was okay? He helped me to my feet and shepherded me to the front of the store. We made our way to the small food court and I rested on a bench seat as Jason got me some water. As my head cleared, I tried to reach for the water bottle on the table directly in front of me. Nothing happened. My arms and top half of my body wouldn’t move, I felt as though I was made of molded plastic with no moving parts. I tried and failed to move my arm again and felt a flash of terror. ‘I’m having a stroke’, I thought, the words loud in my mind. “I can’t move my arms,” I told Jason. He looked at me seemingly confused. Then I said words no one has ever heard me say and they lit a fire under him, sending him into immediate action – “I think I need to go to hospital”.

Jason was on his feet and at my side instantly helping me to lie down. As he turned to get his phone, a police officer walked by and I heard Jason, his voice oddly strained saying, “My wife may be having a stroke, can you call an ambulance?” The officer complied and only a short time later one arrived and I was rushed into a high dependency bed in the Emergency Department. By the time I arrived, I could move my arms and body and was feeling okay but had a ‘brown out’ episode in front of the doctor a short while later. It seemed that whatever was wrong with me was escalating.

This time when admitted to the hospital, I was taken seriously and kept in for four days whilst the Alice Springs medical team liaised closely with the Neurology Department at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and eventually figured out what was happening to me – it was a severe drug interaction.

My doctor had put me onto a new pain medication (Tramadol), both an acute (every 4 hour dose) and a longer acting slow release dose. Initially, I was taking long-acting Morphine with Tramadol throughout the day, but my doctor (not realising a drug interaction was occurring) thought the morphine was causing my blood pressure to drop too low (causing my first few episodes). Thus he changed the morphine to the slow-release Tramadol and this is when I really started to have problems. Tramadol, when combined with a particular nerve pain medication (I have been on for years for a spinal nerve injury) can cause Serotonin Toxicity. Serotonin toxicity or syndrome severely affects muscle function, disrupts signals from the brain to the rest of the body, causes seizures, serious mental health imbalances and the nervous system ceases to work properly. If left untreated it can lead to death. This interaction was responsible for all my symptoms, including the hemiparesis. These medications should not be prescribed together.

After reviewing my medication log and diary of events, we could see a correlation between a worsening of my symptoms with every increase or change in this medication. The cure – stop taking it but gradually, as the serotonin toxicity worsens with every change in medication dose, even a reduction.

The next month was dreadful as every time I dropped the dose, the side effects increased dramatically, leading to more episodes of dizziness and passing out and many other unpleasant side effects. Each time I dropped the dose, I would have one to two days whereby I lost control of my body and spent most of the time resting on the couch, feeling horrible whilst knowing that ultimately this was the path to regaining my health and sanity. My mood throughout the Serotonin Toxicity was nothing short of feral and my cravings for chocolate took on an obsessive trend. I joked (later) that for Jason, coming home from work was akin to opening the door and being greeted by a large and mightily unhappy Rottweiler dog. His only path to safety lay in running into the lounge, throwing a bag of Cherry Ripes at me and running to the other end of the house until Rottweiler Veraina slipped into a chocolate induced, friendlier mood.

I am happy to say that we successfully navigated this treacherous period and I begun to recover. The doctors at the hospital were pleased with my commitment to reducing the drug dose (as many people stop reducing once their symptoms worsen).  By Christmas I was only having the occasional dizzy spell with no full-blown episodes and I begun to be able to do more. All that said though, it would take another two months before I felt recovered.

It took me a long time to regain my post operative recovery momentum after such a dreadful complication and I was angry at my GP for quite some time.  The only good to have come of the whole mess, is that he now knows a lot more about checking possible interactions to the medications he prescribes.  I just wish I hadn’t had to be the ‘crash-test’ dummy!

*Cerebral vasospasm is narrowing of a cerebral blood vessel and causes reduced blood flow, which may lead to delayed ischemic deficit and cerebral infarction if left untreated.