Brain Surgery for a Headache
By: Donna Hale Chandler
It was shortly after lunch when my 25-year-old daughter first complained of a blinding headache, I wasn’t terribly concerned. I had been a sufferer of Cluster Headaches for years and knew that a headache does not automatically translate to ‘I have a brain tumor and only hours left to live.’ I simply assumed that I had passed on those bad headache genes to my youngest and gave her all the home remedy advice that had worked for me in the past.
However, nothing seemed effective for her. The headache would hit with blinding speed, last for hours and then finally ease allowing my daughter to function somewhat normally. One particularly painful day, I received a call to drive her to the emergency room. She felt her head was exploding, her vision was blurred, sounds were painful, altogether a miserable day.
After sitting in the ER waiting room for over an hour, she was ready to give up and go home. The bright lights and loud hospital noises were becoming more and more unbearable for her. At last, someone came for her, listened to the description of her pain, took her vitals and again left us to wait. At least this time we could dim the lights and pull the curtain to cut out a little bit of the noise.
A doctor finally appeared, looking concerned and over-worked. The first order of business, he announced, would be a CT scan. My daughter was immediately on alert with dollar signs flashing amidst the bright lights. She asked the doctor if he could just give her something for the pain as she was without health insurance and a CT scan sounded like a pretty expensive procedure.
The elderly doctor stood firm, insisting that a CT scan be performed. After all there is not a price tag on one’s health. She received an injection to help with the pain and soon was whisked away for the scan. Again, the waiting began, this time for the results of the CT scan and to find out what test would be next. The doctor had mentioned a spinal tap and she was not at all thrilled with the idea of a foot-long needle being inserted into her back.
Suddenly there was a flurry of activity. Nurses appeared in mass with the doctor hurrying along behind them. At first it was difficult to understand what they were talking about. I heard the word ‘aneurism’ and had no idea what that could mean. But it seemed there was no time for lengthy explanations. There was a bleed in her brain which could bring about instant death or a severe stroke at any moment. A medical helicopter had been ordered to fly her to a bigger hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Even though the new hospital was less than 10 miles away, driving there in an ambulance was not even considered.
As if by magic the small room suddenly filled with ‘helicopter people’. It seemed that everyone was asking different questions at the same time. I heard a young woman ask her, as she started an IV, “Do you have any allergies?” “Peanuts,” was her quick reply. “Ok,” the young woman quipped with a smile, “We promise to not serve peanuts on this flight.” With that, they were off and I was suddenly standing alone.
Once I arrived at St. Joseph Hospital in Ann Arbor, I found that she had already been taken in for yet more tests. Her father arrived and along with her we met with the doctor. A vessel in her brain was ‘leaking’ blood. Should it burst, the consequences would be dire. It was Sunday evening and they were trying to locate a brain surgeon for immediate surgery.
Just as the doctor again came to us with news, her boyfriend came rushing into the examining room. We were advised that the best neurosurgeon for her situation had been located but he practiced out of Ford Hospital in Detroit. She would need to be transferred there immediately. The doctors felt that she was stable enough to be taken via ambulance the 50 miles to Detroit. So again, we prepared to leave one medical institution for another.
We watched in a daze as she was readied and then loaded into an ambulance. Once she was settled, we sprinted to our car to follow along. We had not even gotten out of Ann Arbor when the ambulance pulled into an empty store parking lot and stopped. ‘Oh dear’, we all thought, “Something has happened and this can’t be good.”
As we pulled in behind, the driver of the ambulance came trotting back to speak to us. He said that she seemed to be having a reaction to a medication and they would be taking her back to the Ann Arbor hospital as they weren’t comfortable continuing with her in her present condition. As we started back the way we had just come, we were wondering what in the world could possibly happen next.
At the hospital, we realized that she had not been taken out of the ambulance and was being treated without moving her back inside. It was several minutes, which of course seemed like hours, that we stood quietly in the darkness waiting for an update. At last, the driver told us that she was again stable and they would be leaving for Detroit. They would be driving with lights and sirens and we were not to try to keep up with them. The driver assured us that once they delivered her, they would wait for us and direct us to her treatment room.
Sure enough, the driver was waiting for us and walked us through the emergency department to a treatment room where she seemed to be in an argument with a doctor. The doctor introduced himself as the neurosurgeon and explained that emergency brain surgery was needed right away but she was hesitating to sign the consent form. Even though she was heavily drugged, she had stayed awake and alert. She was insisting that she only came in for a headache, that she felt better, and that NO, she did not want anyone to shave her head and start poking around in her brain. The ‘discussion’ continued until she reluctantly scribbled her name across the form. As soon as the pen left the paper, everyone flew into action.
It was exactly midnight when all activity ceased. The waiting room was deadly quiet. It seemed that everything had happened so fast and very little had been explained to us. We sat in the dim lights bewildered, could there possibly be any more surprises in store?
A nurse appeared out of the stillness, sat down beside us and said that she would be keeping us informed as to the progress of the surgery that was to take approximately eight hours. After that, our daughter would be taken to the Intensive Care Unit and would probably spend at least 14 days there. Once she was well enough, physical and occupational therapy would begin and it was very probable that her would remain for another 30 days with them before transitioning to another facility or perhaps, if all went extremely well, to her own home with in-home care.
The night crawled by slowly, until finally around 8 AM a nurse appeared by our side to let us know that everything went well. She had been taken to ICU and we would be able to see her very soon. I dared not ask about the prognosis. I didn’t want to face any bad news. I just wanted to see my youngest child.
A few minutes later we were shown to her room. Her head was completely covered with bandages except the hair that had not been shaved was gathered into a braided ponytail and was sticking straight out of the top of those thick bandages. She was awake, alert, and knew where she was, what had happened, and who we were, so we were encouraged that at least that part of her memory was intact.
In only four days she was moved from the ICU unit to a private room. Three days later they allowed her to go home. She had made a miraculous recovery with no need for physical or occupational therapy.
Ten days later when she went back to have the staples removed. The attending nurse said that in her 25 years of nursing she had never removed staples from a patient who had had this particular surgery and GONE HOME. Every patient had still been hospitalized; some still in intensive care at staples removal.
Now for what should have been an extremely happy ending – but wasn’t quite. The astounding medical bills began to arrive. If you remember when we began, she was hesitant to have the very first test as she was without insurance. The business office helped her apply to different avenues of assistance but in each instance the answer was no. The two main reasons – she was not a single mother with children dependent upon her and the treatment/surgery did not leave her disabled. So, because she recovered and did not have kids, she was on her own with a mountain of debt that, in her lifetime she would never be able to pay. However, she was healthy and you can’t put a price on your health.
As I put these words to paper, it is 18 years later. My daughter is living near me in Florida and has no after effects. I count her as one of my greatest blessings and every time I see her, I marvel at her recovery. She was born on Valentine Day and at one time I called her my valentine but in March of 2004, she became my miracle.