“Kim, you have a tumor. We have to get it out now or you will die.”
Those words are heart-wrenching to anyone’s ears, but especially so to those who have just buried a parent. I had lost my daddy only three weeks earlier.
My mother, sitting by my bedside, wailed. “Oh, no! I’ve just lost Chem. I can’t lose Kim, too!”
In the months leading up to Daddy’s death and my surgery, I had felt my health declining but I didn’t know why. All I knew was that I didn’t want my parents to worry about me. My visits to them became less frequent. Meanwhile, Daddy’s health — asthma, heart problems — took center stage until a third heart attack suddenly took him Home.
In the days following the funeral, we thought my shaky hands and wobbly legs would get better once I got over the shock of losing my daddy. But when my hands trembled so badly that I couldn’t even dress myself, and when I couldn’t even move from bed to chair without stumbling into a wall, we realized my symptoms had to be more than shock.
A respiratory crisis at midnight proved to be a blessing in disguise. While the emergency-room team worked on my lungs, a doctor noted the severe tremors, the unsteady gait. The next morning, when the nurses tried to dangle me, or sit me up on the side of my bed, I couldn’t keep my head upright. It lolled around on my shoulders.
On Halloween night, we received the diagnosis: meningioma. I listened for an evil laugh from my doctor, the bearer of the news. Oddly, though, all I heard was my own sigh of relief.
“So, I’m not just losin’ it, after all!” I marveled, upon hearing I would need surgery. “So, this thing can be cut out and I can get on with my life?”
“Yes, these tumors are usually benign,” the doctor assured us, “but this one is quite large. I need to run an arteriogram.”
I continued to weave in and out of reality. My systems had begun to shut down one by one. I could imagine the brain, the CPU of my body, flipping switches from on to off: lungs, check. nervous system, check, and so on. During the arteriogram, I felt intense heat on my face, as though I had stuck it in an oven turned up to 400 degrees. When the nurses wheeled me out of the procedure, I gave everyone around a thumbs-up.
I hardly remember going down for surgery. I relied on accounts from my mother and my husband to fill in the blanks.
The morning after my surgery was also my birthday. I had barely opened my eyes when my neurosurgeon, wearing a smile, strode in like a white knight.
“Well, Kim, you’re one lucky lady. That sucker came out cleaner’n a whistle!”
The tumor was encapsulated, benign, and– thank God — out of my head. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving? With that evil presence no longer homesteading in my brain, I could pack my bags and head on out, right?
Not quite. A teenager in the 1960’s, I had heard the word hallucination linked with magic mushrooms, LSD, and Hippies getting high. So I was outraged when Neuro ICU nurses dared inform me that I, a college English professor, had been hallucinating.
The mirrors, glass, and lights in the Neuro ICU did a number on my post-op brain. Shortly after my surgery, I saw images in the mirrors. The first, a vision of Mama and Daddy, smiling at me. An aura of light surrounded Daddy.
Next was a birthday party. As I had received the good news early on my birthday, I was positive that the nurses who bustled back and forth in the unit were getting ready to throw me a party. Shortly after I was moved to another building, I began waving at people — people in the oil paintings hanging on the walls. I thought those paintings covered up two-way mirrors and that a waiting room was on the other side.
“Who’re you waving at?” asked a nurse, one morning, as she was setting me up with my breakfast tray.
“Friends,” I answered. “They’re waiting to visit me.”
My explanation made perfect sense to me. So why couldn’t the nurses or my family understand?
These sensations were realer than real! My mother reached her wit’s end with my behavior. Desperate to get through to me, she called on one of the nurses to help.
“See, there?” huffed a nurse, showing me what was really behind the picture. “There’s nothing but blank wall. There is no waiting room on the other side.”
When my husband arrived in my room, after work, he stashed the offending picture in the closet.
“There,” he spat. “That better be the end of that!”
I looked at him in horror. How could he be so hateful!
Within days, hallucinations exorcised, I was ready for the next move: Rehab. At five o’clock, one morning, I told a nurse about my post-op adventures.
“Kim,” she said, “your brain has suffered an enormous insult. For years, a tumor crowded it. Now, it’s adjusting to surgery. The hallucinations were simply a post-op after-effect.”
Hearing her explanation, I recovered rapidly. In fact, I was released from the hospital on December 1, 1995 with doctor’s orders to begin an outpatient rehab program called B.I.T.S, or Brain-Injury Transitional Services. But, as I got better, I watched my mother get worse. With cataracts clouding her vision and glasses, held together with paper-clips, slipping down her nose, Mama relied on hospital staff to guide her from my first stop to my last. As we had to move fast to get me some help so soon after Daddy died, her heart ached with untended grief.
Thanks to our support system: friends from both her church and mine and frequent calls from my sons, we made it through.
One day, Mama shared a comment that my son, Tam, had offered, when she called to tell him the good news after my surgery.
“You know, Grandmother, it’s as though Grand-dad died so that Mom could live.”
With God’s grace and my mother’s quick action, I had regained steady hands, strong legs, and a sharp mind. The time had come to care for her as she cared for me.
After all, turnabout is fair play.