The Lonely Priest and the Avocado: My Journey of Surviving a Brain Tumor.
A priest slowly walks the hall in Neuro ICU, with purpose in mind. Business is slow these days, for better or worse.
He arrives at the patient’s room that designated Catholic on her admission papers. The patient looks familiar. The priest pauses, realizing just a few months ago he administered her sacraments, and relieved, he states with a smile, “You again?” Father enters the room, asking if he can once again administer the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick and Viaticum.
Upon completion of his priestly duties, he leaves, and I turn to Brendan and say, “Wow, I must have lived a really full life, he had to do that twice.”
You see, it’s been nearly a year since my life turned upside down, and I’ve been working diligently to come to grips with this journey. My therapist and a few well-meaning friends suggested I open up a bit to a few close friends and family on my experience to further along the healing process. It’s been very difficult to discuss, and I realize I’ve shut out many people around me.
It’s taken time to sort it all out, their continued support has helped me get me through this, and in fact, on my one- year anniversary, I’ll be putting on a pretty dress and celebrating my life.
Here’s the Cliff notes, I’ll spare the clinical details. One evening I was dining with friends, the next day I collapsed into a grand mal seizure. Don’t go away, this is not a graphic story.
Having never experienced something so physically dramatic, I recall thinking, “Is this how I die?” I really had no clue what was happening, but my life didn’t flash before my eyes. I was happy to be alive, but not thrilled all this had to happen as I was getting out of the bathtub. It wasn’t like the movies at all, I wasn’t dressed to the nines and wearing a pretty dress.
A CT scan revealed the cause of the seizure was a golf-ball-sized brain tumor, a meningioma, that required a resection. I returned to work as if I had just bumped my head. Commuting to work however became complicated as I was not allowed to drive and required a driver. I promptly deemed this as my Driving Miss Daisy chapter.
Several weeks passed, and I discovered how fortunate I was to be in the hands of an incredibly talented neurosurgeon who performed a complicated yet successful craniotomy. As I was prepped for surgery, I felt confident with the impending outcome and joked with my anesthesiologist and residents about an episode of Scrubs Meg and I just watched.
Humor was, and continues to be, an important outlet that’s kept me sane. After three days in ICU, I was discharged with 36 stitches halfway across my head and a punky hairdo. I didn’t know then that this would happen two more times.
20 days later, salt was thrown into my wound as I fell ill. Once again, my neurosurgeon promptly ordered an MRI and discovered a big problem. I was not allowed to leave the hospital and prepped for emergency surgery that day. We were told I was fortunate to have had the intuition to call him as he said I was within hours of a much more serious outcome.
A craniectomy was performed, but the infection was so severe that a portion of my skull was discarded. I woke from surgery surrounded by a concerned clinical team as the right side of my body was unresponsive, and with a soft spot on my head much like a newborn’s. It was so traumatic and not funny at all, but let me tell you there was a line to see me like my room was an Apple store.
In all this though, and as hard as it might be to grasp, the thought never occurred to me that I wouldn’t walk or write again.
So here’s where I turn your attention back to the lonely priest who came to my aid for the first go-around with me. My treatment plan was put in place by an excellent team. Many days passed, and much to the relief and tears from all, my toes wiggled but my arm was not so compliant.
Having been transferred to the PT floor, I was required to undergo rigorous therapy for six hours a day for three weeks, with an end goal to walk unassisted and at least have the ability to grip an object with my right hand. Honestly, these were my darkest days that overshadowed the fact that I survived that tumor. But Brendan greeted me at 6:30 am each morning, and often accompanied me to therapy.
My husband brought dinner each evening, food that was gifted by my generous community. Somehow he held it all together so graciously and was so strong for everyone. Meaghan was by my side every evening, massaging my unresponsive hand as I quietly wept from exhaustion, and she never once left my side until I drifted to sleep. Not being dramatic, but it was rough. This is when I fell quiet from the outside world.
I couldn’t text, I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, and I pushed the outside world away.
When I wasn’t in therapy, I was tied to a port providing me with antibiotics. Signs were placed on my door and above my bed to remind staff that I had “No Left Bone Flap”, meaning don’t touch the merchandise. Brendan and Meaghan thought the signs were funny, and decided should I have a rock band, that would be its name.
One day in the gym, as my confidence was slowly improving, I looked around and had this overwhelming feeling that I was still the lucky cowgirl. Here I was, surrounded by paraplegics adjusting to their norm and frail patients trying to find strength in their new normal. I was the healthiest of the bunch.
So, that avocado.
Have you ever noticed how slimy and slippery they are?
As Cinco de Mayo approached, the staff decided we needed to celebrate! Now mind you, there were no Patron shots involved, but there was a feast to be had. The patients, in all our limited skill sets, had to do the meal prep, and I was somehow charged with making guacamole.
I tried like a banshee to get my right hand to cooperate, so I could peel the avocados with my non-dominant left hand, but you don’t notice how difficult the task is until you do it. It was a ridiculous sight as they slipped and fell inside the bowl over and over.
We somehow survived our tasks at hand enough to enjoy a buffet of Mexican food, and stared at each other in wonder at how each of us ended up in the basement of a hospital slinging food and listening to Zeppelin.
It was actually a really, really good day.
I was asked one day what my goal was, and feeling like a caged animal, I said I wanted to be home for Mother’s Day. The look I was met with was Um, okay, as I had only been there a few days and Mother’s Day was a week away. One of the discharge conditions was to possess the ability to care for myself.
I asked my husband to fish a bra from my dresser with a front closure so I could prove them all wrong and dress myself. Well, I have to say my young female occupational therapist and I had quite a laugh when we realized he brought in from the deep depths of my lingerie drawer a lacy push-up Victoria’s Secret front-closing bra.
Even at the worst moments in life, it’s comforting to know that humor can still be a part of it all. So yeah, I proved them all wrong and came home 13 days ahead of schedule.
Home meant spending five hours a day hooked up to a line of antibiotics, with limited guests for fear of germ exposure. As I gained strength, friends took me and my awesome safety helmet for walks and continued to feed and care for us. Two months later, a cranioplasty was performed, and with plastic and titanium freshly installed, I became bionic.
This is where my story comes full circle back to my second visit from the lonely priest and the prayers he bestowed on me. I managed to escape ICU 35 hours later.
I recovered, we thought. Enjoyed celebrating my September birthday in high fun and fashion, and resumed driving. I returned to work eager to prove to myself and others that cognitively I was still in the game. Unfortunately, the scar tissue from the previous surgeries caused the first of three post-surgery seizures, and I was diagnosed with epilepsy.
Epilepsy, it seems, is quite misunderstood, in my case, fortunately, it simply meant I had more than one seizure on the books. My meds have been adjusted several times, and I am praying for no future episodes, your continued thoughts and prayers are still needed and appreciated. Thank you.
My hand was forced to leave my job at Gift of Life and all of my wonderful coworkers, and that’s been a hard pill to swallow. I am still going to volunteer though as the mission is deeply ingrained in me. I cannot drive until July, dammit, so I’m bumming rides and Uber-ing about town.
I needed to put this in writing to heal my spirit. I hope your next 365 days are full of much love and laughter.
Tee Kennedy is a mixed media jewelry artist and supporter of several benevolent charities. Her passions include kitchen dance parties and engaging in deep conversations with her golden retriever and rescue Siamese. She appreciates vintage design and gifted songwriters, and believes that love rules and humor heals.