Bench Warmers

13 years ago this week, my first brain aneurysm roared into my life with an early morning rupture during the busiest and most stressful time of year for me.

I had heard the term before because my cousin in Philadelphia had her un-ruptured brain aneurysm coiled a few years earlier. But I truly didn’t know what it was, nor how serious it could be when the ER doctor told me I had a brain aneurysm. I just remembered thinking it wasn’t a good thing.

After my coiling the next day and the subsequent 21 day stay in the hospital, I had LOTS of time to think about aneurysms and try to learn more. Even after I left the hospital I was very confused about how they were able to get the coils up into my brain from the right side of my groin when the aneurysm was on the left side of my brain. No one drew me a diagram or showed me a graphic…I just didn’t know. And no one in the medical community shared any of that kind of info with me or my boyfriend (now husband).

In rural Maine at that time, there were no resources available for brain aneurysm survivors. Although I wasn’t able to read very well yet, or type very well, I had my laptop with me in the hospital. “Friends” DVD’s really saved me during that time, but I also discovered an online brain aneurysm support group. It wasn’t associated with any foundation or national organization, but there were survivors from all over the world chatting about brain aneurysms. I FINALLY had some questions answered from people who were going through the same things. It was a revelation.

It was there that I met Julie from New Hampshire. She was still recovering from her own rupture three months earlier. She was taken to Maine Medical Center and had the same procedure and doctor as I did. It was so nice to speak to someone who knew the struggles of the 608 neuro ward as well as the fatigue, emotions, and recovery process associated with a ruptured brain aneurysm.

There were men and women of all ages from around the world in this group. Some had more serious issues, which was unsettling when I’m still actually IN the hospital, but it also allowed me to see I was not alone and that there were survivors out there who were many, many years out and thriving. They gave me hope and comfort.

I kept in touch with Julie after I was discharged and we continued to speak online and share our struggles and recovery. When Dave’s niece Kim passed away from a ruptured brain aneurysm and her friends and family created the KAT-Walk in Portland, Julie drove over to attend one of the first events. Her support meant a great deal to me and it was great to meet her in person! Social media apps and cell phone capabilities weren’t as active then as they are now.

We also befriended Lori, another survivor from Florida who was having a very difficult time with a massive brain aneurysm. The three of us met in person for the first time in 2011 in Massachusetts at a brain aneurysm awareness event along the coast. The three of us walked the course, shared survivor stories, laughed a lot, and hoped we’d have another opportunity to see each other again.

Lori, Julie & myself in 2011

Both Julie and Lori have had other medical issues since I met them. Julie has another brain aneurysm that is being monitored and has survived breast cancer. Lori is a walking miracle having endured multiple, highly dangerous brain surgeries and has a brain filled with hardware. Both of these terrific ladies are an inspiration.

Lori was a good resource for me when I had my craniotomy on my 2nd brain aneurysm in 2014. She called to check on me and gave me the best advice about ice being your friend! SO true! Even today, when I’m overtired and feel my face swelling where I had my surgery, I place ice there and always think of Lori. She certainly has had her share of ice.

That same year, Julie and Lori made the journey to Maine for our 6th annual KAT-Walk & Karo-5k for brain aneurysm awareness. I was thrilled they were both coming. Julie helped in the brain aneurysm awareness tent and Lori did the run with her new service dog Tober! It was great to meet her husband Ralph. What a fun couple.

It was a cool day on the Maine coast and sun-lover Lori was very cold! They were all so nice to stay afterwards to help tear down the circus, but since we’re all brain aneurysm survivors….we tire quite easily and silliness ensued! Having a seat on one of the benches along the Back Cove was a nice respite where we could rest, chat, and cuddle to get warm. I don’t know what precipitated the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil photo, but it worked at the moment.

Julie, Lori, Ralph, and Tober joined us for our after-party and the silliness and good times continued. When you meet people you just click with, even if you don’t see them or speak to them that often, it just works. Good, good people.

The after party – 2014

Since 2014, our lives have changed a lot. Some worse, some better, but we’re still thriving and surviving. Julie has come to the walk several more times to support us, even when her husband was struggling with a serious health issue. Lori had plans to join us one year, but a pesky hurricane kept her close to home in Florida. We are no longer members of the online support group, but keep in touch via Facebook.

Thankfully we were all able to get together again this year for the 11th annual KAT-Walk & Karo-5k. As it was five years ago, the weather was chilly and a few showers moved through. Lori dressed appropriately, Ralph wore shorts, silly man! Tober is his usual amazing doggy self. What a good, good service dog.

Ralph did the walk with Tober, Julie helped me out in the brain aneurysm tent and Lori ran/walked the 5-k. She’s amazing.

We decided to recreate our “bench photo” from five years ago to mark the occasion. I’m five years older and about 10 pounds heavier, but we still had a lot of fun.

Then they joined us for the after-party which was filled with laughter and medical stories. Survivors LOVE to share & compare their stories and to give great details – myself included. The great thing about these ladies though, is that there is great empathy for one another. Yes, brain aneurysms brought us together, but we’re now connected in other ways and we respect and care about each other’s families. Now THAT is a support group.

So, as I “celebrate” surviving my ruptured brain aneurysm 13 years ago, I also celebrate finding these two terrific ladies and THANK them for helping me get through my recovery, healing, and living.

Plates, Screws, and Dents

I have often referred to the hardware in my brain as my “brain bling”. It’s not a term I came up with myself, but stole from another survivor. I’ve always considered my brain bling to consist of my 16 coils plus 4 more, 1 stent and 1 clip: Basically, metal that is keeping me alive.

The black blob is my 20 coils and there is a stent in there somewhere. The clip on the 2nd aneurysm can be seen to the right.

But wait, there’s more! I keep forgetting I have more metal in my head in the form of the plate and screws used to hold my bone flap in place.

The 20 coils and stent came first, then the clip via a craniotomy came after. A craniotomy is a type of surgery that removes part of the skull (a bone flap) to access the brain underneath. When the procedure is complete, neurosurgeons put the bone back in place and secure it with tiny plates and screws.

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Simulation of the plate and screws securing the bone flap

With my fingers, I can feel the plate and screws under my skin, and at certain angles and lighting they’re very visible sticking out slightly under my skin. The much more visible aspect of most people’s craniotomies is the “dent” or a skull compression that can occur.

The dent is a common occurrence due to the refitting of the bone flap. It is impossible to reattach the bone flap for a snug fit, for any number of reasons. Therefore, a space is created between the two bone surfaces and fitted as closely as possible. The bone is reattached and secured with the plates and screws to ensure very little movement and easy surgical access if it is necessary. However, the piece of bone can shift slightly and create that indentation.

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The dent

They can use synthetic fillers to restore the normal contour around the dent, but I have opted not to have it. It just makes me nervous having something injected around that area. I pretty much try to cover my dent with my hair. I’m not horribly self-conscious about it (if the wind blows my hair up….THERE it is!), it’s just not that attractive. So, as long as I have bangs, why not use them to cover it up, right?

My Actual Brain/Head Bling Count:

  • 1 Titanium Plate

  • 2 Titanium Screws

  • 1 Titanium Clip

  • 1 Stent

  • 20 Platinum Coils

And no, I do not set off the x-ray machine at airports.

Here is a short video clip I took a week after my 2nd brain aneurysm was clipped back in 2014.

Two-Year Checkup 2018

I had my two-year MRA last weekend. Another trip down to Scarborough. This time on a Saturday afternoon, which was unusual and nice. Less traffic and great parking! My choice of music was 80’s pop and the whole thing took less than 20 minutes. Bada bing, bada boom. They used a combo of ear plugs and then placed ear phones over that. So, the sound of the MRI machine was significantly muffled. Nice!

It’s amazing how your mind plays with your emotions during that period of waiting. Especially when a potential vacation could be derailed if things have changed dramatically and I was told not to fly. A lot was riding on my brain and it had been a longer stretch of time between checkups.

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So, today I finally got the results back and this report was good. Nothing had changed from two years ago and we’ll do it all again in two years. (2020!) I still have that remnant of blood getting in to the neck of my first brain aneurysm, but the fact it stayed the same is good. Do I think I’m free and clear of ever having any other issues? No, but for now…I’ll take it. And I’m glad I didn’t have to endure ANOTHER angiogram. I’ll have to go back and check out my blog to see just how many I have had since 2006.

I’m still a survivor.

Look out Scotland & Northern Ireland! Here we come!

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Seize The Day?

The Latin saying Carpe diem means seize the day or live each day to the fullest.

Do I Carpe diem? If I’m honest, no I don’t. Being a double brain aneurysm survivor, I SHOULD seize each day, but I don’t. Am I grateful? Of course, I am.  Do I wake up each morning and think “I am so grateful and blessed to be here”? No, I do not. I should…but I don’t. And those people who say they DO wake up each morning and actually think about how blessed they are, the skeptic in me thinks, “Really?”

MY first thoughts every morning are that I’m very tired, or my back or head aches, or that I slept far too long on my left side, which is a bad thing because of where my craniotomy is. No, my first thought usually isn’t how grateful I am.

I wish I could live each day to it’s fullest and feel grateful every day. Although I am one of the fortunate ones who still can, I need to work to pay the bills and secure good health insurance. I think more about those things. And I do more work than Carping that diem.

What I DO think about every day is brain aneurysms. How can I not? I think about my own aneurysms and the issues I still face. I think about the paths people’s lives, not just mine, have been forced to take as a result of brain aneurysms.

The parents who has lost a child. The husband who has lost a wife. The child who has lost a mother.  All of those people I have met and they are a part of my life now due to our shared experiences of losing a loved one to a brain aneurysm.

Brain aneurysm survivors are also a part of my life. We share a bond. We share our fears. We share our frustrations and scars with one another.

I’m not crazy about the month of October, so I’m always happy when I make it through the month. It’s VERY stressful at work in October and my family history has many sad occasions and memories that have happened in October. I suppose I should be grateful the month goes by in a snap…suddenly it’s November. It’s cold. All of the colorful leaves have fallen off the trees. One of these years, I WILL get to the mountains of Maine, stay in a hill-top cabin and view the fall foliage. Something I have yet to do since moving here in 2000.

September is the month when I FEEL the most grateful for being alive and being able to share my brain aneurysm story and help anyone I can. It’s the month chosen for our annual walk and run to honor the lives of two beautiful young women taken far too soon by ruptured brain aneurysms.

Then that pesky cynic within me thinks…I’m pretty sure no one I know would have organized a walk or run in MY honor. That’s how loved and adored these two young women were and how many friends they had. I couldn’t even get one person to visit me at home during both of my recovery periods….which were 6 and 3 months respectively. Yeah…I’m pretty sure I would have still remained just part of the statistics had I not survived. Which makes MY survival even more difficult to take. Why did these two young, vibrant, popular women have to die and I’m still here? I guess it’s to share my story and theirs. Lucky me? I’m grateful? Yeah…sometime’s it’s very difficult to feel that.

BEING grateful every day is a given in my case. If I wake up…yeah, that’s good! FEELING grateful is a whole other animal and it hits me at moments, rather than an every day thought.

I remember feeling grateful at the end of October when my devoted husband and I pulled into the driveway after two weeks in the hospital after my rupture in 2006. Although I wouldn’t return to work for another six months, it was a relief to be home. I was grateful to see the inside of the house I had come to love and to pet my kitty cats again.

I was overcome with emotion that following spring when I walked out to my garden for the first time and it hit me that things were starting to come alive again, as they do every year and that I was grateful, lucky, and blessed to be able to see my garden again. To smell the wet soil. Feel the wind on my face. Yes….I WAS grateful and very emotional as a result. It could have all ended in early October for me.

I feel grateful every September during our annual photograph of brain aneurysm survivors at the KAT-Walk & Karo-5k. I am grateful to be alive and to share this photo with other survivors from all over the state of Maine, New England and the country. I FEEL those moments tremendously.

It’s far too easy to assume someone who survived a life-threatening illness or medical emergency is grateful and lives each day to the fullest. Many don’t have the luxury to do so. Many have such horrible deficits that just living each hour is a struggle. Do they have time or the capacity to even THINK about being grateful? I doubt it.

Without even knowing it, I do believe I am grateful on a daily basis. I can rattle off a list of the things I am grateful for. It’s that seizing the day thing I still have to work on. I’m very tired.