They Never Tell You What Brain Surgery Cuts Out of You
The surgeon fixed the water on her brain. But what else left with it?
I was a college sophomore when I won an award for my academic greatness. Funny thing about the word sophomore: It derives from the Greek words for “wise” and “fool.”
That night, to celebrate, I got together with some friends, chugged a 24-ounce Four Loko, and blacked out. When my vision cleared up I was still drunk in the ER with my teary-eyed parents. As I drifted back into unconsciousness, I thought to myself: “This what rock bottom feels like.”
The sunlight pouring into my hospital room woke me up the next morning. A doctor stared at me from the foot of the bed. His face was long and tired. He already knew the news that showed how foolish I was to think I’d yet hit bottom.
“When your mother carried you in,” he told me, “you had a blood alcohol content of 0.30. Now that you have fluids, you don’t have to worry about that. We still need to keep you for more testing because some of your results weren’t good. While you were out we performed a CT scan of your brain, and we noticed that a growth at the fourth ventricle has caused you to form hydrocephalus.”
They Took Out the Tumor, but the Tumor Was Part of Me
Funny thing about the word hydrocephalus: It also has Greek origins. Its translation, “water on the brain,” is apt. Think of it like this: Vienna naturally floods, but global warming has raised water levels and is now destroying the city’s infrastructure. In my head, a tumor causes the water levels to rise, which mashes my brain tissue. The pressure is so intense that when babies get hydrocephalus, the water bulges through their underdeveloped skulls.
Unlike global warming, my problem couldn’t be ignored. Two surgeries, 28 rounds of radiation, over a month as an inpatient, two haircuts, three broken friendships and one employment termination can really change a person.
When I awoke from my first brain surgery, equipment taped to various parts of my body blinked and pinged. I saw my mother and smiled.
“Today is a good day,” I said.
“Yes, it is, sweetheart,” my mom said.
At my bedside, I saw a cup of water. I had been in surgery for five hours, and even though it felt like 30 seconds to me, I knew I deserved to treat myself.
I reached for the cup, assuming that I still knew how to grab it. Instead, my hand shot in front of me and knocked it over, spilling water everywhere. That’s how I found out I’d lost most of the motor skills on the left side of my body, my dominant side.
I needed to relearn how to walk, eat and write.
It took two months working at it to see improvement, but I was never the same. I could always feel the tugging of scar tissue in the back of my head, reminding me that one night, while I slept, a strange man came into my house and stole things. Things like plants growing by the windowsill. Things like ash in the fireplace, or ants on the ground. To others, he took something that needed to go. To them he took, as a biopsy stated, “a WHO grade II ependymoma,” or in more general terms, a cancerous brain tumor. Even though I didn’t know I had this mass for most of the time it was inside of me, I missed it when it was gone. I felt like I lost a part of myself.
I despised my surgeon. This man who had apparently saved my life had no remorse for what he took. What if, wrapped up in that pesky mass, was hope? My self-esteem? Sensation in the left side of my body? Is that why I no longer felt any of these things? I spent a long time limping around with my numb left leg, expecting it to suddenly feel the floor under my feet or the engagement of my leg muscles. I spent an even longer time waiting for everything to become normal again, waiting to feel beautiful again, only to remain stuck in this ugly, scarred-up, weak form. That bastard did this to me.
You Can Lose Everything but the Very Toughest Parts of Yourself
I went back to college and was miserable. Class was unbearable. My professors pissed me off. I was friends with white girls who felt comfortable unironically saying the N-word to me in private. And my head pounded constantly. I spent most of my days in bed.
Thoughts of death followed me everywhere. I would watch a clock tick and wonder how many people in the world at that very moment were taking their last breath. I saw children playing in the street and wondered whether tumors already were growing inside them.
I desperately wanted a mentor. I looked to my mother, but she kept crying at the thought of having almost lost her child. I looked to my friends, but they thought they were invincible and stared blankly when I told them my fears. I looked to professors, but I knew more about my pain than they ever could. At last, I closed my eyes and saw the one thing I assumed no one would take from me, the back of my eyelids. I felt my eyes, tired and bloodshot from sleepless nights, relax under the gentle caress of their protectors. And I realized, in my gratitude for their service, that my assumption was flawed. When it comes to loss, everything is fair game.
People tell me that if they were in my shoes, they’d kill themselves. It makes me smile every time. I know I'm a wiser person for having suffered through what I’ve been through. I conquered something. I’m a dragon slayer.
Today, I walk down a busy street on a typical evening. I hear the artificial wind of cars speeding past in such a hurry to get home from the daily grind that they clobber potholes in the road ahead. I see friends stumbling together outside the neighborhood bar. I see homeless men picking through garbage, and men in hoodies standing with their backs to the wall of a dark alley. As the sun sets and twilight closes the day, I look down to the pavement and see our shadows, stretching out on the sidewalk, beginning to fade into night.