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.

Glad Tidings

Happy New Year to you and those you love. May 2017 be filled with good health and contentment for us all.

It’s natural at the end of the year or early in a new one, I think to reflect a little on how life has been treating us, and vice-versa. Its no secret that 2016 held a few difficult times for me as I grappled with needing another craniotomy and then the actual recovery; but as I have looked back at this past year, I’ve found myself feeling quite happy. Yes, there were some very real hurdles to overcome but largely it was a good year.

I mentioned this to Jason yesterday and he said he felt the same way, that in amongst it all, we have seen and done lots of fun and new things and his overall impression of 2016 was also a good one.

I think sometimes it’s too easy to write off a year due to one or two ‘bad’ events or situations. In 2016 we enjoyed two interstate road trips, saw many interesting and beautiful places, continued to develop our new found friendships with the people sharing our Denver journey, had a week’s holiday in Mexico, established ourselves as ‘locals’ at the nearby brewery, connected closely with our friends and family around my surgery, have been to see lots of new movies at the cinema as they are so inexpensive here, learnt new skills, survived our first blizzard (I stayed indoors and refused to stick even a nose out the door), became Great-Aunt and Uncle as we welcomed two baby girls into the family and settled into our new life in Denver.

All in all, not bad when you consider I had brain surgery mid-year!

Here’s to a wonderful 2017 for us all.

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.

img_4913

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.

img_4794img_4805img_4806

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.

img_4819

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.

Vulnerability and Connection

This thing, the human condition lets say, is a shared experience and opening up about my struggles often allows or encourages others to do the same.  In this way, I believe we help one another to carry the burden, to understand we are not alone in our travails and that there is hope for better days.

Exposing oneself is not an easy thing to do but my experience has shown that being vulnerable in difficult times, opening up about the things that frighten me, gives an opportunity for others to be kind, show unwavering support, surprise me with the depth of their love or friendship and to remind me there is grace to be had, there are safe places to reside when the pain becomes too strong and even, occasionally, laughter still to be shared.

I am astounded by the cocoon of wellbeing I have found myself woven tightly within by people far and near, those known for years (even decades for some) and those only recently met.

To be filled with gratitude at a time when I thought I’d be terrified is a marvellous thing.

Thank you.

Birthday Reflections

 

Light reflects off the vodka cocktail in my hand, the beat of jazz music pulses through me, fingers tapping in time with the drums, I am happy, I’m celebrating turning 45 and I am happy. I have a table full of new friends with me, watching incredible musicians generate a spell over a room crammed full of appreciative people, in a place I have never visited before and I feel good. I’m 45; wow! I think I’m officially pushing middle-aged now and like everyone before me, with our brains permanently set at 25, I do not feel ‘middle-aged’ or at least what I used to image middle-aged would feel like.

Caught up in the feel-good haze of this moment, I reflect a little, thinking of the last five years since I turned 40. Another of those milestone birthdays that in all honesty, I was grateful to reach. Having had a stroke at 36 and spending quite some time working to avoid another (sadly an all too common occurrence for stroke survivors), I do carry an appreciation for having lived and not having suffered further brain injury and deficits.

Living with an appreciation for living though has not been as simple as I might have thought. Daily living does take the shine off, further health issues have certainly given me moments where I’ve wanted the pain to end, wished for a different, dare I say, better, life. I am after all, only human. What I do though, is try to celebrate the things worthy of celebration, acknowledge the beauty and pain in life and tell those around me how much they mean to me, be it a thank you note, saying “I love you” or signing messages with xx (kisses), these small gestures help keep me connected and I hope ensures the people I care about, know it.

We celebrated my fortieth birthday in true Central Australian style, hiring a bus to transport my guests to Ooraminna Homestead, a real life cattle station a short ride out of town on rutted, rust red roads. There was so much rain that summer the ‘Red Centre’ was indeed quite green, full of new growth and abounding with wildlife. The road to the Homestead was so muddy, a backhoe was sent to greet the bus and lead us to our destination, ensuring a handy rescue should our vehicle become bogged. Friends old and new, local and distant congregated at the most perfect of venues, watched the sun set the surrounding rocks to flaming oranges and reds and set down on another brilliantly hot day in the desert.

I have such clear memories of that evening, surrounded by friends, many whom had traveled from interstate and whom upon meeting one another for the first time, kicked off new and lasting friendships amongst themselves. I could hardly wish for more.  I recall standing with a glass of champagne in hand, twirling slowly in the warm night air, music of my choosing playing in the background, looking upon the people around me and feeling blessed to be in such company and to have so many good people share in my celebration.

20110226-IMG_7023

I was happy and knowing it, I made my way to Jason’s side, looked up at him with gratitude and a big grin, and told him how happy he had made me by throwing such a wonderful party. We stood together for a short while, hand in hand, watching our mad-capped friends party.

To know, really know, when I am happy and to take a moment to dwell there is a gift of my post-stroke (and brain surgery) life.

Back in the jazz lounge, my mind gently wanders through the major events of the past few years. I am known to joke that each new year will finally be a ‘quiet’ year for us and whilst I often feel as though I am unable to participate in life as fully as I would like, the past five years do feel as though they have had more than enough excitement in them to last a while. Big picture, since I turned forty, Jason and I have had two interstate moves, Alice Springs to Canberra and back again and one international move, Australia to the USA. I have started 5 new jobs, earned promotions, dramatically increased the number of hours I can work per week and now await the approval of the US State Department for an American work permit; whilst setting up the foundations for freelance writing work.

I lived alone whilst Jason undertook a posting to Western Australia and had two surgeries in that time. Thankfully my mother was willing and able to stay a while and help nurse me back to health. A trip that would ultimately lead to her retiring upon returning to work and the realisation she didn’t want to be putting up with all the crap associated with working in community health at 74 years of age! Such things will happen after spending six weeks enjoying sunny days, afternoons in second hand book stores followed by coffee and a few laughs (or listening to me rant about the level sexism inherent in Australian culture). Perhaps not so much; but it came with the territory I’m afraid. Anyone remember what our first female Prime Minister had to contend with?

I do, however, digress.

In these past five years, I nursed our beloved cat of 15 years through her final months until her dignified end, under went brain surgery and labored through a long recovery, but not before planning and spending an entire month camping and four-wheel driving our way through the Kimberley region of far north WA with friends; an adventure never to be rivaled in my book.

Since turning forty, I have lived in four different houses, set them up and packed them down again and best of all I have met and made many new friends, whilst strengthening my existing relationships.

Life can be scary and sometimes a little too action packed for my liking but I do value the many new experiences I have had these past five years and as I turn and look at the women seated at the jazz lounge with me, sipping my cocktail, I smile to myself and wonder what the next five will bring me.

IMG_4160

Ready for the Next Five!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vaguely Human

I’ve been reflecting on how much better I have felt these past couple of weeks. I haven’t woken with a headache in a while and although I am still on slow release morphine morning and night, I can now go three hours each morning before needing any acute pain relief.  My use of Endone (more morphine) has all but ceased, leading to a clearing of my mind and lifting of paralysing lethargy.  I am beginning to feel much more like me again and perhaps even vaguely human!

Thanks to having more energy I can contribute around the house in a more meaningful way.  Jobs like un-stacking the dishwasher are now possible, as the intensity of the pain in my head when bending down has lessened greatly.

There are still mornings when I wake with swelling around my right eye but it generally resolves as I move about throughout the day.  The pesky double vision visits me most frequently at night when I am tired; and while my daytime vision is good, there are still limits on how long I can read or write, although it has increased much farther than the 10-minute mark of early days.  Jason knows it is past time for me to be in bed when he notices I am holding one eye closed while watching T.V.  It’s a ‘tell’ I hope to lose soon, although it does serve as a definitive signal of fatigue.

Driving has been restored to me with the okay from my doctor. I am sure you can understand if I take a moment to shout ‘Independence is mine’.  The timing was helpful as the financial pressure from me not bringing home any pay for five and half months was making taxis a luxury we could no longer support.  My first few outings, I was acutely aware of how long it had been since I drove and took it slow and very easy.  I can say happily that driving has become more natural again but as a precaution, I still take my time checking for traffic and ensuring my decisions are not rushed. Whenever I head out, I am thankful to live in a small town with small town traffic.

My head is clearing relative to the slow but steady reduction of pain meds and my doctor thinks I could be off everything by the end of the year.  Over coffee recently with a former boss, now friend, I was asked what am I working towards in the next few months and after a short pause I told her that, “I would very much like to enjoy a glass of champagne on Christmas Day (having not drunk alcohol since April) and another on New Years Eve so I can fondly say farewell to 2014”, a year that will now always be the year I had brain surgery. What’s that saying? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  I think I must have that tattooed on my arse or somewhere else I can’t see, you know, like a birthmark.

I am noticing other improvements as the weeks slide by and am thankful that my hair has stopped falling out and breaking at the slightest touch. With hair long enough to get caught in my armpits (why did no one warn me when I said I’m growing my hair?).  Anyway, with long hair that continually shed, a house with all tile floors, it’s safe to say we’ve had Veraina tumble weeds rolling about the place. Thankfully it appears to have slowed.  I recall how freaked out I was when my hair was first washed after surgery (by a lovely nurse who regaled me with stories of the annual spiritual (and boozing) retreats she organises).  As she began rinsing my head a couple of clots of blood and hair came off from the points where they drill into your scalp to hold the head still during surgery. Ewww!! Even more came away when we combed it. I lost tons of hair in the first few months, thankfully not enough to be noticeable to others.  It was a result of the stress upon my body, the anaesthetic and other drugs etc.  My appointment with the hairdresser sadly had to be cancelled as my scalp and scar were still too tender but I think next month’s the charm. This is the longest break I think I’ve had from getting my hair coloured. It has proven a trifling entertainment to rediscover my natural colour.  It’s a little sparklier under bright lights than I remember.

So, as the improvements roll on through, I have enjoyed my first few days with pain-free hours, no icepack on the head for break through pain, no waking in the middle of the night because I’ve been resting on my scar for too long and no ice pick stabbing pains in my skull.  Yes, I still need to medicate when the headache seeps back in, to prevent it from becoming a migraine, but the intensity is nowhere near what it was.  I do still occasionally get the electric-spider-dance pain across my forehead but I have found rubbing the skin furiously works well in dealing with that. And thankfully, the whole ingrown hair torment seems resolved, although I have leant the important lesson of getting a promise from Jason before he ‘looks’ at my scar, that there will be no squeezing without explicit consent.

Speaking of scars, mine has healed remarkably well and with the hair growing back, it cannot be seen without close inspection. I had thought it would be visible should I have short hair again, but it wont.  My surgeon did an incredible job keeping the entire scar within my hairline.

In feeling more human I have had a tentative peek at a full recovery.  I can for the first time, see the end in sight.  Five months isn’t really a lot of time but being in pain and a drug fog, stumbling about trying to rehabilitate, it has at times certainly felt like a long time.

I read a passage today that spoke to me about dealing with adversity.

“Even the worse things can exude some lightness: Yes, this is terrible, this is not what I wanted, not what I’d hoped for, not what I’d worked for, maybe even what I feared. But also it’s not that bad. It is like a dream. It’s happening and not happening. Soon it will be in the past. So I can look at it differently, I don’t need to validate all these dire thoughts that only make matters worse. Maybe I don’t need to be so worked up about it. Maybe I can just figure out how to deal with it without that extra measure of anxiety and freak-out.” Training in Compassion by Norman Fischer

I certainly indulged in a fair bit of freak out in the beginning of this journey but in the end, despite brain surgery being the scariest thing I have faced, I turned up and did what I had to in order to keep living.  I worked hard at rehab, have struggled with the side effects of medicines but have, with lots of love and support begun to find my way out, my way out of the dream. The surgery is in the past as is most of the pain associated with it.  I can now turn and face the future while residing in the present; there is after all, still work to be done today, so I may reach my best ever recovery and future.

I Knead This

Today I spent three hours baking. Baking for the simple joy of it. I tackled a Nigella Lawson recipe I have read and re-read, its allure seemingly irresistible but the complexity of it holding me at bay. I have had the cookbook open on the same recipe for two weeks now and I linger over it each time I enter the kitchen, running through the ingredients list and instructions, working through the experience, step by step in my mind, looking for a description of anything too difficult for me to perform, given my current dexterity and strength limitations.

Today it seems was the day. Damn it, I thought, standing facing the cookbook as though it were a living entity I needed to conquer. Nigella has never let me down and the end result does sound delicious – even if it is unpronounceable. I mean what is a schnecken anyway?

My mum taught me to cook, beginning when I was quite young. It was something as a child I insisted I wasn’t able to do. My mother though, was a wonderful baker and whenever my brother and I went to school with some delicious home baked treat in our lunch boxes, we were assured to have options for trade come lunch time. I have a vivid memory of sitting on a small brick fence while several other kids held their lunch boxes open for my inspection. These kids were the ones who had store bought treats (the kind we didn’t have at home) and I ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ over these offerings knowing I could choose anything I wanted because of how good my mum’s baking was.

I like to think to myself now that if I had kids, I would be sending them to school with treats that would also put them at the top of the food barter totem pole.

Basil Brush CookbookMy first ever cookbook was ‘The Basil Brush Cook Book’ which looks and reads entirely like a children’s storybook and I have vague memories of baking something resembling Anzac cookies called, Daddy’s Favourite Cookies. This delightful part of my baking history was restored to me only recently and it sits in its rightful place now with the rest of my cookbooks.  Did you have a copy as well, growing up?

When my confidence in the kitchen was still poor, my mum found another small cookbook that had recipes of only five ingredients and straightforward instructions, as thus I cut my teeth and my confidence grew. I was best known for my banana muffins. Nowadays I cannot imagine not cooking but more so baking; it is in my blood and my heart. I have felt quite disconnected from cooking since coming home from hospital as work in the kitchen takes time, precision, dexterity and usually a lot of bobbing about, all things my head, hand and eyes have not appreciated.

As I have improved though I have returned to baking simple things. A few weeks ago after feeling a bit low and as though chocolate was the only possible cure, I found myself in the pantry gathering up ingredients for a batch of chocolate biscuits (another Nigella recipe) and they were delicious, velvety and rich. Rather unfortunately though they gave me indigestion so horribly that I packaged them up and sent them with Jason to his work place where they were both appreciated and devoured. Much more gratifying than eating them all myself!

What I re-discovered though was the simple joy one can find in seemingly mundane activities.  Baking is my art, my solace and my greatest pleasure and as I studied this morning’s recipe, I decided that if I paced myself, I could end this day with something tangible to show for my efforts as well as something delicious to eat.

As I said earlier, the entire production, yes, production, took three hours and provided me with a couple of physical challenges, moments of “you want me to do what?” a fantastic rehab workout with 10 minutes of dough kneading, and a boost in confidence when the end result was, as promised, looks and smells incredible and are in fact just as Nigella describes. “They are like cinnamon buns, only more so. They are stickier, puffier, gooier and generally more over the top.”  Imagine a hot cinnamon bun covered in syrup made from butter, sugar, maple and golden syrups, with a topping of chopped walnuts. As Nigella says, remove from tray and apply to face.  Admittedly, I had to have a little lie down before that part!

I wanted to write about this I think because I felt whole while baking and got a great sense of satisfaction by producing something. It takes me out of the merry-go-round of rehab for rehab’s sake and whilst something as complex as today’s baking challenge provides me with great rehab, it isn’t its purpose.
Maybe I should do a ‘Julie & Julia’ gig and commit to cooking every recipe in my beat up copy of ‘How to be a domestic goddess – Baking and the art of comfort cooking’.  I don’t think Nigella had recovery from brain surgery in her sights when she wrote it but by god, it is certainly providing me with great comfort and joy.