Month: March 2015

Brian Wins!

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1974 began with me clunk-stepping my way around the house. It was slow going but at least I could get about. Using the walls and furniture for support was no longer an option. I had to keep my knees locked when standing or walking. If they buckled even slightly down I went. I had to climb furniture to get up again. If I fell in a hallway with no furniture around I was stuck. Mom suggested putting a horn on the walker so I could honk for help. Dad fixed a bicycle horn to the walker. At the same time he attached a blue plastic bicycle basket to the top crossbar. This simple basket afforded me a lot of independence. I could do things like get something from the cupboard, drop it in the basket and take it to the kitchen table. It may not seem like much to an able-bodied person but after months of having to depend on other people to do everything for me except breathe I welcomed the freedom.

Dad pushed me around in a wheelchair when we went outside. All street curbs were square. If we were going down a sidewalk and we wanted to cross the street, we had to wheel down the sidewalk of the adjoining street to find a driveway to take us to street level, cross the street, go up an adjacent driveway to the sidewalk, go back up the street and continue down the sidewalk that we were on originally.

Dad and I wanted to see a hockey game at Fort William Gardens in January. Dad phoned the Gardens to find out how to get access for someone in a wheelchair. He was told that he had to wheel me in the back way where they herded the circus elephants, go under the stands and stay at ice level. When I heard this I said, “No.” Why couldn’t I go in the front doors like everyone else? Why shouldn’t I?

In February the doctors started another attempt to wean me off decadron. They lowered the dose as before but this time they replaced the decadron with prednisone. This regimen worked for me and by midsummer I was off all medication.

Prednisone: A synthetic corticosteroid medication used to reduce swelling and inflammation.

As the dose of the medications decreased my legs got stronger, my eye sight started to clear, my co-ordination, speech and swallowing improved, and I was expanding my chest again. My clunk-stepping was faster and I leaned less on the walker. I started to lift my walker and take two or three steps. I felt a wonderful sense of achievement because I knew in my head and heart I would walk again.

At long last it was time to put the walker aside and take a step without support. I was nervous. I remember standing beside the fridge in the kitchen. I held the walker beside me with my right hand and firmly grasped the counter with my left. Then I let go of the counter and walker. With my arms spread wide I stepped forward into Mom’s waiting arms. With daily practice that one step became two then three then four. I can’t adequately describe in words my sense of joy, freedom and accomplishment in taking that one first step.

I have always loved the rich character and ornate architecture of 19th and early 20th century buildings. But I am dismayed at how they were designed with only able-bodied people in mind. These buildings have been retrofitted to be wheelchair accessible. However they can never be as accessible for persons with mobility problems as modern buildings that are designed to accommodate people in wheelchairs. Even though I can walk, because of my mobility problems due to my poor balance, retrofitted buildings are harder for me to use. I should have started Grade 9 at Hillcrest High School in September of 1973. Because of my health I couldn’t go.

I should have started Grade 9 at Hillcrest High School in September of 1973. Because of my health I couldn’t go. My parents arranged with the local Board of Education for me to receive my high school education through the home schooling program set by the Ministry of Education in Toronto. I guess you could say my high school was 909 Yonge St. in Toronto. When asked I say, “Hillcrest,” to avoid explanation.

Academically I received a thorough high school education. What I missed out on was the social part of going to high school. When I attended LU I listened to my classmates talk about the parties and outings they had with their high school friends. I missed all of that.

The Ministry mailed the texts and materials to me. At home I wrote out the assignments onto a note pad of lined paper with a section at the top of each page for name, date, course and assignment number. I tore the pages off the pad, put them in the envelope provided and return them to the Ministry for marking.

At the time I started the high school correspondence courses my writing was reasonably legible although my hand was slow. Given my blurred eyesight my writing stayed on the lines of the page for the most part. But because of my poor vision I couldn’t read the books or instructions. Mom began reading the books to me. For three years we sat across from each other at the dining room table. She read course instructions, assignment questions, text books, short stories, novels and plays as I made notes. I best remember the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451 where a government tries to suppress the knowledge of its people through burning books. It was scary. Never had I imagined such a society could exist. I was inspired as I listened to The Miracle Worker, a play about the fortitude of a young woman, Anne Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller, a deaf/blind girl, to read and write. Helen Keller became a personal hero as I learned about her resolve to conquer her disabilities just as I was trying to overcome mine. The correspondence courses didn’t start in September and finish in June. They went all year round which allowed me to work at my own pace.

On the other hand math was Dad’s domain. He read the math texts and course assignments to me. However it’s hard to read out an equation so the listener can understand. So Dad and I sat beside each other. I made notes as he read. When I needed to I held my magnifying glass over the equation or formula to read it for myself.

After the first year of study my eye sight began to clear, my hand was faster, my writing was more legible and it stayed on the lines more. Even the teacher who had been marking my assignments at the Ministry of Education in Toronto noticed the improvement.

Christmas of 1974 was a happier time than the last. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind I would live. I was getting steadily stronger, speaking more clearly, no longer incontinent and able to do more things for myself. The year 1975 would be a time I could look to the future once more. Brian wins!

My Game – Third Period – My Fate Is Decided

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Third Period. My fate is decided. My brain tumour went away. It never came back. But the drastic treatment – the radiation therapy – came at a price.

Whenever I recall the whole ordeal with my brain tumour I first think of 9:00 AM, Friday, November 3, 1972. It became an anniversary date. But my struggle to survive didn’t end with those three months in Toronto. It continued in Thunder Bay. The year of hope, 1973, was the fateful year that decided whether I would live past 14 years old.

In 1972, the radiation therapy could only be targeted at an area. Along with killing my tumour it caused a lot of collateral damage. As the doctors predicted a delayed reaction started six weeks after the treatments ended. Up until the radiation therapy reaction began my co-ordination, balance, swallowing and speech were improving – and my smile was getting broader.

When the radiation therapy reaction set in, my brain tissue in the irradiated area swelled blocking the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that caused the intracranial pressure (ICP) to increase which would kill me if left untreated. The doctors were ready for this. When the reaction began they put me on decadron medication to keep the swelling down.

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF): The fluid circulating in and around the brain.

Intracranial pressure (ICP): The pressure of the CSF.

Decadron (dexamethasone): A steroid medication used to counteract swelling and allergic reactions.

As the reaction progressed my face became completely paralysed. The 7th cranial nerve controlling the muscles in my face died leaving me with no facial movement at all. My speech became more slurred. My eyes turned in giving me double vision again. I had more difficulty swallowing. I had to chew each mouthful of food thoroughly and wash it down with milk. My co-ordination and balance got steadily poorer. I had so much trouble handling utensils at the dinner table that Mom spoon fed me. I started to use a cane when I was outside. In the house I used the walls and furniture to help me get about.

Trying to communicate wore me down. Since my lips were paralysed I couldn’t press them together to pronounce letters like “b”, “m” and “p” properly. In time I learned to pronounce all letters fairly well with my tongue. But my tongue was getting slower. I was frustrated day after day as I lost my ability to communicate through speech. Not being able to make facial expressions like raise my eye brows, frown or smile added to my communication problem. Now not only was my smile gone but my mechanical speech as well. Mom and Catharine were the first two people to catch on to my new way of speaking. I called it my accent. Dad and my friends took a bit longer. Dad seemed more disheartened than me at not being able to understand what I said. It didn’t take him long to catch on.

I felt trapped. My world was caving in on me. Many of my days were filled with desperation and helplessness as I succumbed to my declining health. I was heartbroken having to let people do more and more of the things for me that I used to do for myself. I could at least have bowel movements again by September but somebody, usually Mom, had to clean me up. I had the humiliation of becoming incontinent and was wetting the bed at night. There I was 14 years old and wetting the bed. I was so embarrassed. In the back of my mind was the fear of what my uncertain future may bring.

Only one activity lifted my spirits. Dad took me out for a drive every evening after supper. It gave Mom a breather after taking care of me all day. We often stopped at Chippewa Park. Arm-in-arm Dad helped me slowly walk around as much as I could which wasn’t very far. We often stopped at a Dairy Queen on the way back and I’d get a Dilly Bar, my favourite. I looked forward to our drives every evening. Dad and I shared our thoughts about a current event or Dad told me a story about his youth in England. It took my mind off my desperate situation and kept a glimmer of hope in me that one day I would overcome this.

When we returned home I told Mom about my adventure. We watched TV or I just said good night to her and make my way to my room. Dad helped me get ready for bed. I sat in the chair beside my bed and Dad, often assisted by Catharine, gave me my tooth brush and held a bowl for me to spit in. When that was done I crawled into bed. Then Dad sat in the chair beside my bed. As I lay tucked tight with the room light off and just the light streaming in from the hallway Dad read to me. Dad liked reading to me as much as I did listening. It was soothing to both of us.

Dad chose several wonderful books. Farley Mowat became my favourite author as I listened to many of his works. My favourite was the warm and funny story of Mutt in The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be. By the time Dad had finished the book I felt as close to Mutt as if he was my dog. Dad introduced me to Stephen Leacock’s colourful wit and humour in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. He read The Mapmaker about David Thompson, who surveyed much of North America in the 1800s and who kept many of the maps he drew in Fort William right where we lived.

I can’t recall when Dad stopped reading to me every night. When I started to feel better and more confident with life he tapered off. In my mind I can still see and hear Dad reading to me as he sat by my bedside illuminated only by the light from the doorway.

My parents were distraught by my failing condition. The doctors said it was likely the result of neurological damage caused by the radiation therapy. My health would stop deteriorating when the radiation therapy reaction subsided. If my brain tumour was the reason they were at a loss for options as to how else they could treat it.

Was the radiation therapy the cause of my declining health? If my brain tumour was still growing could the doctors find another way to deal with it? Would my brain tumour prove to be untreatable? Only time could provide the answer. For the time being my only option was to stay the course of the long months of decadron treatment. As it turned out, time showed the radiation therapy to be the cause.

Decadron irritated my stomach which made me feel hungry all the time. With a good appetite and decreasing mobility I quickly put on weight. During the year I was on decadron I doubled my weight from 80 to 160 pounds. I have the stretch marks and flat feet to prove it.

Decadron also promoted premature closure of the ends of my long bones. When the long bone ends close normally after the growth spurt in adolescence you stop growing taller. A doctor in Thunder Bay took angled X-rays of my leg. He told me I should have been 5’10” instead of 5’4”. It’s safe to assume I should have been at least as tall as Dad who was 5’9”. A few more inches would have been useful but it’s hard to miss what I never had.

A week after got back from the Toronto ordeal I went back to school excited to catch up with friends and finish Grade 8. A month after I returned to school the radiation therapy reaction set in. I could no longer physically attend school. I was upset. My friends came to see me at home but as my condition worsened they stopped coming. They couldn’t handle seeing my health decline. I couldn’t blame them because I would have done the same thing in their place. The school board arranged for supply teachers to drop off text books and assignments at the house in the morning on their way to work. This didn’t work out. So the school board found a teacher, Olga, who had retired to raise her family. She came twice a week to help me with her four year old son, Lornie. Lornie kept Mom entertained with his stories while Olga taught me my lesson. Between Olga’s visits I worked on the assignments she gave me. Olga made schooling both interesting and fun and with her guidance I finished Grade 8. In those few months Olga became more than my teacher. She is a good and valued friend that I stay in touch with to this day.

By September, 1973, it was time to get off decadron. It was not just a matter of stopping the medication. My body had become used to it. I was hooked. The doctors started the process to wean me off decadron by first lowering the dose gradually over the next few months. They started me on cortisone acetate along with the decadron.

Cortisone acetate (glucortizoid): An adrenocortical steroid medication used to reduce swelling and inflammation.

The plan was to take me off decadron altogether by getting the cortisone acetate to take over keeping the swelling brain tissue in check. Then they would stop the cortisone acetate. The doctors examined me every two weeks for signs of ICP build up to see if things were going as planned. If this regimen didn’t work my brain tissue would swell, block the flow of CSF and make the ICP increase. They lowered the dose of decadron. If I said I felt all right they left me on the lower dose for two weeks. If I was still okay they decreased the dose some more.

I wanted to get off decadron. In my mind getting off it was the remedy for all of what was happening to me. I said I was fine when I really wasn’t. It didn’t hurt but my head just didn’t feel right. It was like everything was churning away inside.

“Soon I’ll be off decadron,” was all I thought about, “I can put up with my head until then.”

As they decreased the dose of decadron and simultaneously increased the cortisone acetate the worse my head was. But I wouldn’t give in. The cortisone acetate wasn’t keeping my brain tissue from swelling like the decadron had.

One evening in mid November Catharine and I were watching TV in the den. She noticed me becoming nauseous and ran to get Mom and Dad in the living room. When they got to me I was already throwing up. Mom being a nurse recognized the signs of intracranial pressure build up. My brain tissue had started to swell. They rushed Catharine down the street to the neighbours and me to Emergency at McKellar Hospital.

The doctor who had monitored me just a few days before examined me. He had no explanation. There was no sign of pressure build up those few days prior. My brain tissue suddenly swelled making the ICP spike. He admitted me, injected me with a big dose of decadron and hoped the medication would reduce the swelling to relieve the pressure. Dad went home to stay with Catharine and Mom stayed the night at the hospital. The big question now was – would I make it through the night?

The decadron did its job. This meant I was back on full doses of decadron and another attempt would have to be made to get me off it. The doctor quickly scheduled me for neurosurgery to have a CSF shunt implanted in my head to prevent this situation from happening again.

CSF shunt: A long flexible plastic 1/8 inch diameter tube inserted into a ventricle cavity in the brain that allows the CSF to flow even if its natural course is blocked. If the CSF flow is blocked the CSF accumulates in the reservoir of the shunt. The resulting increase in ICP opens a pressure release valve in the reservoir which allows the CSF to drain away into the abdomen to relieve the pressure.

On November 17, 1973, just over one year after my first neurosurgery, I was in the OR in McKellar Hospital. Surgery went smoothly. Again I hallucinated but not as much as before. I spent the next three weeks in the hospital. The shunt will be forever in my head. I no longer need it but it would be another surgery to take it out.

When I woke up the morning after being admitted to McKellar I couldn’t see clearly. Blinking and rubbing my eyes didn’t help. An eye surgeon was called to examine my eyes. The sudden ICP increase damaged the blood vessels in the backs of my eyes making them bleed which caused my vision to blur.  After examining me the eye surgeon expressed to my parents his concern that the damage could be permanent. Mom and Dad downplayed the news to me. They said that the eye doctor said it would take a while for my eyes to get better. I was disappointed by the news but I remained optimistic. It was yet another harsh blow in what had been a year of one heart break after another. Over the following year my eyes gradually healed.

One evening while I was in McKellar after neurosurgery a very thoughtful nurse named Laura from the neurosurgical ward gave me some large print books to read. She had gone to the library after work and picked out some books she thought I would like.

I made it home two weeks before Christmas. My time in that hospital bed left me unable to walk without a lot of help. We rented a walker from the Red Cross which I started using when I got home. It was a light aluminum frame that I lifted ahead of me with a clunk and stepped up to it. When it came time to trim the Christmas tree I had to sit in a chair and watch Mom, Dad and Catharine decorate it. With legs that wouldn’t support me, poor co-ordination, double vision and now blurred eye sight I was unable to help. Still I was home.

I did my Christmas shopping that year from a wheelchair with Dad pushing me around the malls. I quickly learned how hard it is to get around slushy parking lots and through narrow, closely-set double doors that many stores had in the 1970s. We celebrated Christmas as we did every year with all the cakes, goodies, roast turkey, and friends stopping by with their Season’s Greetings. I know they wondered if this Christmas would be my last.

On New Year’s Eve we raised a glass to toast 1974 with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show as the ball dropped in New York’s Times Square. A new year had arrived and with it came renewed hope. Score!

My Game – Second Period – The Game Is Tied

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Second Period. The game is tied. A week and a half after I was sent back to the neurosurgical ward at Sick Kids I was transferred to Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto to receive the radiation therapy treatments. I met more kids there all of whom had been diagnosed with one form of cancer or another. Even though I didn’t have cancer I would receive the same radiation therapy. Two of them were from Thunder Bay – a little four year old girl named Tina and a boy, John, who was a year younger than me. John and I quickly became friends.

Tina returned home with her mother a week after I got to Princess Margaret. Dad and Catharine had to go back to Thunder Bay at the same time and the four of them travelled together. Sadly Tina didn’t live to see Christmas.

John returned to Thunder Bay before I did only to be admitted to McKellar Hospital for more treatment. The doctors in Toronto felt they had done all they could for John. They sent him home for one final attempt to save him. John lost his life to cancer near Easter of 1973. When I found out I was shaken. I never knew the actual date he passed away but every Easter I think of John.

Although I appeared sicker than most of the kids in that hospital ward with my poor balance, unsteady motion walking and slurred speech, the one thing I had going for me was that I didn’t have cancer.

In preparation for radiation therapy an orderly brought me downstairs to have a plaster cast helmet made. The technician sat me on a chair and donned a tight, stretchy, rubber sort of shower cap on my head that covered all but my face. She covered the cap with strips of cloth soaked in Plaster of Paris. She said, “Sit there for 20 minutes while the plaster dries and don’t turn your head.” Staying still for 20 minutes was the hardest part.

When the plaster dried she picked up what looked like a carpet knife to halve the helmet. She started by running the point along the middle of the top of my head from my forehead to the crown and down the back. I gasped as I felt her run the knife along the top of the helmet. She made a second pass and finally a third. The two halves parted and I could breathe again. The shower cap came off and it was over.

I saw the helmet again a week later at my first treatment. The Chief Radiologist at Princess Margaret decided to treat my tumour by administering 5,250 rads of radiation over a course of 30 treatments from late November 1972 to early January 1973. Blast the hell out of it!

Rad: Radiation Absorbed Dose is the unit for measuring the amount of ionizing radiation delivered to the body.

An orderly walked me down to the radiology department for my first treatment. The radiologist sat me on a chair in the middle of a 10×10 foot room and clipped the helmet around my head. Each half sported a 1×2 inch hole cut out around my ear lobes. I looked up and saw what looked like an X-ray machine suspended from the ceiling on rails. She guided it over to me and connected one end to the opening in the right side of my helmet. Once again I had to sit still but for only 2½ minutes. After she went into her booth I heard the machine start up. I waited. Then I heard it shut off. She came back and repeated the procedure on my left side. This would be the drill for the first five treatments. “Piece of cake,” I thought when the first treatment was over. No pain, no hassle, no problem at all. This was going to be easy.

The second treatment went differently. The next day another orderly came to take me for treatment number two. We walked downstairs. I got my radiation therapy without incident and had almost made it back to my room when I suddenly felt violently nauseous. “I feel sick,” I blurted out and hurried to the toilet to throw up. It didn’t happen after every treatment, but sudden nausea happened a number of times during my radiation therapy. The rest of the treatments would alternate between my left side one day and right the next. Adding it up at five minutes apiece for the first five treatments and 2½ minutes each for the rest I logged 1½ hours sitting in that chair being bombarded.

On the whole I was handling the radiation therapy treatments well,. The doctors decided I could to have the bulk of my treatments as an outpatient. When Mom and Dad found out how long my radiation therapy would take they knew they couldn’t spend the next two months in a hotel in Toronto. They started to look for an alternative. One evening riding back to the hotel from Princess Margaret Mom asked the taxi driver if he knew of any places nearby. “There’s a new apartment hotel called the Town Inn at Church and Charles,” he said, “You can rent a small suite with a kitchenette by the week.” They checked it out and decided to take it. The suites were modest but affordable. I travelled from there each weekday for my treatments. Mom, Dad, Catharine and I spent Christmas and New Years there together with some friends from Toronto.

After my first few treatments a doctor informed that me that my hair would fall out in the area I was getting the radiation. I imagined myself going completely bald. How could face my friends with no hair? I didn’t like this at all but what could I do? After treatment number 15 my hair started to fall out. I wore a hair net at night. I could reach back to pluck the hairs out of my scalp without feeling a thing.

The skin became tender and crisp on my ears and especially on my ear lobes – like after a bad sun burn. They were cooking my ears but they had to pass the radiation through them to get at the tumour. My ears kept getting worse until the treatments finished. The skin healed over the next two weeks. I thought my hair would grow back but it never did.

Forty years later I still have a one inch wide band of baldness going across the back of my head from ear lobe to ear lobe. I keep it covered up by letting the hair above grow over the area. I’m careful to point this out every time I get a haircut with instructions to leave the hair longer there to keep that spot covered. Hair stylists are generally okay with this. Some have commented on it being an odd place to be bald.

“Yes, isn’t it?”

When I was in Princess Margaret Hospital I started to get headaches during the night. I walked out to the nurse’s station to tell them only to be given two aspirin and told to go back to sleep. One evening I discussed this with a nurse on duty. She realized I hadn’t had a bowel movement since the day before surgery and I was badly constipated. She ordered a Fleet enema for the next day. The enema cleared my rectum and the headaches stopped. Somehow during the month since I had neurosurgery nobody checked to see if I was having bowel movements. Since I didn’t feel the need to “go” I never thought about it. I had lost the ability to have a bowel movement. The surgery must have affected the nerves for that. This meant getting a lot of enemas to keep me “regular.” Most were administered by Mom. Four months after surgery my ability to have bowel movements was coming back – or at least the feeling to want to go. It was a lot of effort at first but by eight months after surgery, when I was 14, it was pretty much business as usual.

Dad had to work and Catharine had to go to school so just Mom and I stayed in Toronto at the Town Inn for the two months while I had the radiation therapy. Dad and Catharine visited a few times and our Toronto friends stopped by as well. Mom and I went for walks around the Town Inn. We got to know the area fairly well. Our walks often took us past Postal Station F. I remember the big grey squirrels scurrying about. They had to be at least three times the size of the small brown squirrels in Thunder Bay.

My last treatment was on January 6, 1973. In the two days until we caught a plane back to Thunder Bay we packed our things and said good-bye and thank you to our friends who had seen us through the last three months. As we got ready to leave the Town Inn for the airport I reached into the closet and pulled out my Team Canada autographed hockey stick. I grasped it firmly on the taxi ride to the airport, on the plane and on the drive home.

Joe, a family friend, picked us up at the airport in Thunder Bay to drive us to our home. Along the way I happily looked left and right to gaze at all the familiar buildings and streets. It seemed I hadn’t seen them for such a long time. As we turned a corner my heart jumped for joy when I first glimpsed the sight of our house.

“I’m home. I’m finally home.”

It was a sweet homecoming and a welcome chance to breathe a long sigh of relief. We had endured the three month ordeal in Toronto. As that ordeal ended another was soon to begin.

The Time To Act Was Now!

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By mid October of 1972 I was having even more trouble swallowing, my balance was poorer, my speech had degraded further and Mona Lisa had a bigger smile than me. I had more air and dye studies (which they were able to complete this time). As before the results were inconclusive. The medical team decided to investigate surgically.

The last two weeks in October was a time of emotional turmoil and reckoning for me. I knew intuitively for a year before this trip to Toronto that something was wrong with me, but I wasn’t about to admit it to anyone including myself. I convinced myself that if I didn’t say anything about it or pretended it wasn’t there it would go away. I kept everything bottled up inside. Now and then something small would set me off. I became very upset and tearful. Getting away from the situation and be alone and quiet seemed the only way I could calm down. Family, friends and teachers would ask me what’s wrong when I was upset but I clammed up. How could I explain what I didn’t understand nor was willing to admit to?

At Sick Kids after enduring test after test, had many heartbreaks and shed many tears, I broke down the barriers that I had set up in my mind. I finally faced the reality of my situation.

I was moved from the general ward to the neurosurgical ward. There I found kids, some older but mostly younger than me, all waiting their turn for neurosurgery. Being with a group of kids all about to meet a similar fate made my wait easier. We quickly got to know each other exchange names and our home towns. Most of the kids were from the Toronto area. We asked each other like inmates doing time in prison, “So what are you in for?”

Our answers were always candid. I told them they were investigating my balance and speech problem which was true. By now I could admit only to myself that I couldn’t smile – a big, wide smile. I sensed that the one thing so uniquely human, to smile, was the one thing I couldn’t do. It was upsetting.

At 9:00 AM, Friday, November 3, 1972, a nurse wheeled in the gurney to take me for neurosurgery. All I could think was, “They’re taking me to the OR to cut my head open!” I was scared silly. What was about to happen to me? Was I going to wake up with a big hole in my head? I started to panic. Tears filled my eyes. I started to pant.

The nurse pushing the gurney tried to calm me down. “Take deep breaths,” she said quietly, “You’ll be all right.”

I remember being transferred from the gurney to the operating table. They placed a gas mask over my nose and mouth and the anesthetist told me to count slowly to ten.

“One, twooo, threeeeeee, fou…”

The surgeons cut from the crown of my head down the back and into my neck muscles to part my skull. They found the tumour. It was a yellowish-white mass of cells that was growing on the brainstem part of my brain, the floor of the 4th ventricle, which lead out into the spinal cord that involved cranial nerves 6 – 11. Because of my tumour’s involvement with the nerves, the cause of my symptoms, they couldn’t remove it. The surgeons took a biopsy and identified my tumour as a low grade (benign) Type II astrocytoma. The doctors wondered that since the rate of onset of my symptoms was increasing if my tumour was becoming malignant.

Astrocytoma: A brain tumour composed of astrocytes which are star-shaped cells that act like connective tissue in the brain.

Surgery lasted five hours and went smoothly. When I woke up in the ICU the first thing I sensed was a throbbing pain in the back of my head.

“My head. It hurts,” I called out.

The anaesthetic made me nauseous and I kept throwing up. I had to lie on my side and a nurse turned me every 20 minutes to prevent bed sores. The only relief from the throbbing was to lie still. It would take 20 minutes for the pain to die down which was time to turn me and the throbbing started again. Throwing up made my head throb too. Between being moved and throwing up there was no escape from the pain for two days.

As a result of exposing my brain to air I hallucinated for the first two days after surgery. People and things appeared as concretely before my eyes as if they were actually there. I interacted with whoever was at my bedside but beyond that was a world like one created on a starship holodeck. I remember seeing a crowd of people standing at the end of a short, wide hall looking at me. I spoke to them but they just stood there motionless with unchanging blank expressions on their faces. When Mom was sitting by my bed we were on a conveyer belt travelling around a large, dark wood, 1950s style gymnasium. It had a mezzanine track around it with people doing various things. We slowly moved along the floor, up onto the mezzanine, around the gym and back down again. The sensation of motion was very real.

Mom and Dad took turns sitting by my bed in the ICU. Mom and I would talk or she would sit there quietly keeping me company as I dozed in and out. Dad read to me. Unable to hide a look of concern on his face Dad said how sorry he was to see me lying there.

I said, “That’s okay Dad, I’m just the right height for when the nurses bend over.” We both chuckled. The nurses did wear their skirts a bit shorter back then and at 13 I had an eye for it.

On the fourth day after surgery the pain in my head was considerably less and my stomach had pretty much settled down. I was released from the ICU and sent back to the neurosurgical ward.

Between the kids in the neurosurgical ward the word was that you had to learn how to walk again after surgery. I resolved that there was no way I was going to have to learn to walk again after my surgery. So on the fourth morning back in the neurosurgical ward with the bed sides finally lowered and the IV out of my leg I decided that I was getting up.

I slowly sat up. It took a while to get used to being upright again after more than a week lying down. Then I gradually let my feet slip to the floor. The full weight of my body on my legs and the feeling of the floor on the soles of my feet took a minute to get used to. I held onto the bed as I gingerly walked around it. When I felt confident enough I slowly walked out of the room and down the hall. Nobody was more surprised than the nurses as I walked past their station and said, “Hi.” I was up for good and the only time I would lie down again was to sleep at night.

Two weeks after surgery I was well enough to go down to the main public area in the front of the hospital with Mom or Dad. Even though I was walking the trip downstairs was a bit far for me. So Dad pushed me in a wheelchair. Catharine hadn’t seen me since the day before surgery. As she was only nine she wasn’t allowed on the ward or in the ICU. Mom cautioned Catharine that my appearance had changed but I don’t think any amount of counselling could have prepared her. Before surgery I was thin and weighed 80 lbs. The ravages of neurosurgery and having little solid food for over a week had thinned me out even more. I was frail, gaunt and pale. When Catharine saw me she gasped and tears rolled her cheeks.

“Hi Kate,” I said and we embraced. I asked her what she had been doing the last two weeks. As we talked her shock wore off. A few days of regular food, the ability to go downstairs to change the scenery from the ward and to see Catharine and friends soon got me on the mend.

Because my brain tumour was inoperable the doctors decided to treat it with radiation therapy. Leaving it alone wasn’t an option. If my tumour went untreated my symptoms would only worsen. Eventually I wouldn’t be able to swallow at all, have virtually no balance and unintelligible speech. The biggest concern – was my tumour about to turn into cancer? One thing was for sure. Left untreated my brain tumour would kill me. The time to act was now!

Then My Game Began – First Period – The Investigation

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16 Family portrait 1969My health steadily worsened and my parents’ anxiety increased over the next eight months as they took me to see one doctor after another in Thunder Bay. The doctors referred me to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. By October of 1972, one month after the Canada versus Soviet Union eight game hockey series – the 1972 Summit Series – I was back at Sick Kids. My friends and I talked about that series all summer. It was a good distraction for me from the worry of going back to see the doctors in Toronto.

Little was known about the Soviets. The cold war between the East and West was at its height and much secrecy existed between the two sides. At the time Canada playing hockey with the Soviets was a novelty to many Canadians. Everyone learned about the Soviet Union through the games. The whole series, especially the games in the USSR, was like a voyage into the unknown and the mystique sparked intrigue and national pride.

The first four games were in Canada and we were all glued to the TV each evening for every game. The Soviets won two and tied one. The remaining four games were played in Moscow. Because of the time difference they were telecast live in the afternoon. This meant we were at school and not in front of a TV. The games were also broadcast live on radio. One of the boys had a transistor radio in his pocket with an ear phone wire running up his sleeve. The play by play went from student to student up and down the rows for all the games. Not one teacher noticed.

On the afternoon of September 28th, the day of the eighth game, class ended just as the final minutes of the third period were ticking down. The score was tied. There was no overtime. Each team had the same number of wins. If this game ended in a tie the Soviets would take the series because they had scored more goals overall. Canada had to win.

I had just gone to my locker and was heading out the door when a crowd of kids surrounding the bicycle rack suddenly threw their arms in the air shouting, “Henderson scored!” Paul Henderson had scored the go-ahead goal with 34 seconds left in the final minute of play. I ran to the bicycle rack where we huddled around a small transistor radio as we held our breath listening to Foster Hewitt’s play by play of the final seconds. Canada won 6-5 and I wore a smile all the way home.

 

Then my game began:

Brian vs. Tumour

First Period. The Investigation. One month later I was still smiling from the historic goal when Mom, Dad, Catharine and I arrived in Toronto. I saw the doctors the next day who questioned me about my symptoms and did all the initial tests such as listen to my chest with a stethoscope. They wanted to run more tests on me as an inpatient. I was admitted to Sick Kids the following Wednesday.

After seeing the doctors we went to Woodbine race track with Pat, a family friend. Catharine and I called him Uncle Pat. Pat loved horses and everything to do with them. He spent most of his leisure time and money at Woodbine. There he met Frank “King” Clancy who was vice president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and former Leafs defenseman. Pat introduced us to the King and Catharine and I got his autograph. King Clancy turned to me and said, “Come to the Gardens on Saturday and I’ll give you a Team Canada autographed hockey stick.” I nearly fell over. I couldn’t wait. It’s all I thought about for two days.

Saturday morning came and Dad, Pat and I went to Maple Leaf Gardens. Dad said to the doorman, “We’re here to see Mr. Clancy.” Hearing this the doorman perked up and with a smile pointed out the way to where the King had gone. Any friend of the King’s was a friend of his. When we got to where the doorman said to go Dad was told, “Oh, he was just here, try …” This happened a few more times and each inquiry about Mr. Clancy brought a smile to that person’s face. He was obviously very well liked. Our quest to find King Clancy took us to the top of Maple Leaf Gardens where we knocked on the King’s office door. There he was at his desk. He invited us in and we talked for a bit. Then he asked, “Do you know what C.C.C.P. stands for?”

Hey, I knew everything a 13 year old could possibly know about that series. I piped up, “That’s Russian for U.S.S.R.”

He said, “Right, I never knew that.”

I really thought that King Clancy had gone to Moscow and back with the team not knowing what C.C.C.P. on the Soviet jerseys stood for.

The King took us downstairs around to the back of the Gardens where his car was parked. He opened the trunk and in it was a pile of autographed Team Canada hockey sticks. “Which one do you want?” he asked.

The choice was easy. “Henderson,” I said.

King Clancy rummaged through the pile and said, “Ah, here we are, Henderson,” and handed me the stick.

I marvelled at that hockey stick. It was obvious Paul Henderson had used it. There was a chip off the tip of the blade and the tape around it was worn. I read each autograph carefully – Ivan Cournoyer, Ken Dryden, Phil Esposito … Paul Henderson had signed his stick too. I knew the name of every player on that team and the whole team had signed it. Many of my hockey idols in the NHL were on team Canada. Now I had a hockey stick with all their autographs on it that belonged to Paul Henderson.  This was the ultimate hockey prize. Beaming with excitement I proudly showed off my stick to Dad and Pat.

As we walked back into the Gardens King Clancy asked me, “What hand shot are you?”

“Left,” I replied.

“That’s a right-handed stick. You can’t play hockey with that.”

Play hockey with it?! I had no intention of playing hockey with this stick.

Then King Clancy said, “Come back next week and I’ll give you a left-handed stick.”

Wow! I never made it back to Maple Leaf Gardens the following Saturday and I didn’t get a second autographed hockey stick. But I treasure the one I have. I met King Clancy a few more times in the following years and always found him very pleasant and personable. Although he was small in stature compared to today’s NHLers he was big in heart.

The following Monday I saw my first NHL game. Mom, Dad, Catharine and I sat at centre ice ten rows back. I had my first thrill of seeing in person the players I watched on Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday. I felt the coolness off the ice, heard the slap of stick on puck and the players calling to each other. It was an experience wholly different in sound and atmosphere than from watching it on TV.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were in town. That night I discovered a phenomenon named Eddie Shack who played for the Penguins. The Toronto fans cheered for the Leafs as they headed for the Pittsburgh net and I cheered with them. Then I watched in disbelief as those same fans cheered Eddie on when he had the puck charging, like a freight train, for the Toronto goal. Never would I have thought I’d see the Leafs fans cheering for a player on the visiting team. I saw why someone coined the phrase “Clear the track here comes Shack.”

The Leafs won 4-3.

Next season Eddie Shack was traded to Toronto I think just so the Leafs fans could cheer him on as he charged toward the visiting team’s net. Eddie always looked like he was out on the ice having fun. He wore a big smile as he skated around the rink more like a big kid than a serious hockey player. He put a smile on my face as I watched. He said the fans came to be entertained. For that he earned the nick name “The Entertainer,” and he was as entertaining as he was colourful. The Leafs fans loved to see him play including me. I tuned into Hockey Night in Canada each Saturday as much to see Eddie Shack as to watch the Leafs play.

On Wednesday, two days after seeing my first NHL game, I was admitted to the Hospital for Sick Children to investigate the cause of my worsening symptoms. Did I have a brain tumour after all?

Something Had To Be Done

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When the eye surgeon in Thunder Bay examined me in August, 1966, he also found that I was going blind in my left eye since I wasn’t using it. Mom had noticed this as well. She suggested to the eye surgeon that I should wear a patch over the right eye a few hours a day to make me use the left eye so I would regain the sight in it. The eye surgeon didn’t think this would work. Mom persisted. She made me wear a patch over my right eye for two hours every evening and got my teacher to make me wear it for two hours daily during class. I regained the sight in my left eye over six months.

I started Grade 3 in September, 1966, at St. Bernard’s when Catharine began Kindergarten. I liked being a big brother and proudly walked her to school until she was older and joined her friends. We met up with each other at home for lunch and often walked back to school together. I liked running into her in the school yard at recess or when school was out.

We watched out for each other during the four years both of us attended St. Bernard’s. One time Catharine slipped on the ice in the playground and sprained her arm. She was in a sling for two weeks and I walked with her into her classroom to help her with her coat. Another time Catharine saw a boy grab a ball away from me. She wouldn’t have it. She went straight up to him to retrieve my ball and got it. Catharine was always tougher than me in that way.

In July, 1969, Mom took me to Ireland, England and France to visit relatives. I don’t know why Dad and Catharine didn’t come. It seemed strange leaving them at home and I missed them.

We had just arrived at our hotel in Dublin when I decided to turn on the radio on the bedside table. I heard Walter Cronkite saying, “six … five … four … three … two … one …… lift off, we have lift off …” Apollo 11 roared from the launch pad.

Four days later I was at Aunt Gertie’s home, Mom’s sister, in Corofin on the farm where Mom was born and raised. This was the first time in my life I remember living in the same house with my Aunts, Uncles and cousins. We ate together, talked for hours and I befriended my cousins as we played. We sat in front of a small TV set to watch the dramatic first lunar landing and hear Neil Armstrong’s famous words, “The Eagle has landed.”

The lunar landing brought to life one of my favourite TV shows in the 1960s, Star Trek. Following Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy as they zoomed through the galaxy on their adventures captured all my imagination. By September of 1970, the crew of the Enterprise had finished their journey, but at 11 years old, mine was only beginning.

Like Dad I enjoyed working with my hands designing and building things. When I had just turned ten Dad bought a set of Do-It-Yourself encyclopedias. He and I looked through them for a project to do.

The encyclopedias had plans for a working hover craft. It was a big challenge for me at 10 years old to carefully draw all the pieces as specified in the book, cut them out of balsa wood and glue them together. When it was finished I had a 7”x4” hover craft 3” tall. I painted it silver and red with cellophane windows at the front and an airplane tail on the back. It was a really nifty looking job. Dad helped me mount a small electric motor vertically in it. I put a propeller from a toy boat of mine onto the drive shaft.

We made a box with an on/off switch to house two D cell batteries to power the motor. When I turned it on the propeller produced enough down draft to lift the hover craft up to glide over a four sheet stack of paper. I felt as if I was on my own trek of creation – an engineer like Scotty.

I entered the hover craft in the Science Fair competition at St. Bernard’s and won. Then it was off to the bigger Science Fair at the Faculty of Education building at Lakehead University. There I was up against older kids with more impressive projects and I didn’t advance. I was heartbroken. I put my heart and soul into that hover craft as I did with most things. Dad was philosophical about it. I had given the Science Fair my best effort and that’s what counted. He was right but my pride was still bruised.

The next project Dad and I built from the Do-It-Yourself encyclopedias was a wood lathe. I had just turned eleven. It was mounted on a 4×1½ ft. plywood base and driven by an old electric washing machine motor. I turned two bowls on that lathe which I stained and gave to Mom. They sat on the kitchen counter for years holding fruit and mail.

During the year I was eleven I started to become dizzy and lightheaded when I tumbled during gym class or lay flat on my back. Sometimes I was nauseous. Once I became dizzy it lasted all day.

Several times I woke up from a sound sleep and held my mouth as I tried to run to the toilet to throw up. Mom and Dad rushed to the bathroom to help me in any way they could. All they could do was be there to console me as I threw up. The first few times this happened I was frightened.

“What’s happening to me?”

Mom and Dad didn’t have an answer. Maybe my head fell off the pillow and I had a dizzy spell. That seemed like the most plausible explanation. Once the episode of nausea was over, and I regained my breath, they gave me a face cloth to wipe my mouth and a glass of water to drink. Then they guided me back to bed. My head would be swimming and I was seldom fit to go to school the next day. My parents took me to see our family doctor but he didn’t have an answer either.

Just after my twelfth birthday my parents had a photographic portrait of me made – a family tradition (a rite of passage). In it I sported a Mona Lisa smile which looked pleasant enough but it was as big a smile as I could make at the time. Throughout that summer I started to have trouble swallowing. My sense of balance was getting poor, my speech was starting to slur and I had lost the ability to expand my chest as I was only diaphragm breathing – and my facial muscles were becoming paralysed. My parents’ concern grew as they watched my health decline. By August Mom and Dad decided that there was something seriously wrong with me. Something had to be done.

The First Symptom

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It was a two day train trip from Sudbury to Fort William. I remember the gentle sway of the carriage and the clickity clack of the wheels.  Most of all I recall sitting aloft seemingly perched on top of the train in the glassed double-decker observation car. I spent most of the trip in my “nest” watching the countryside unfold before me on my adventure northwest. Even then I knew that one day I would ride this train again – at least for nostalgia’s sake.

We arrived at the Syndicate Avenue train station in Fort William on a mid-April evening. George, a man who would be Dad’s colleague for the next 26 years, met us. He brought us to a cozy, small motel called The Uptown. It wasn’t far from the station and just down the street from McKellar Hospital. We stayed there for a few nights. Then we moved to a motel on the Kingsway for a week. We finally rented a house for two years on Dorothy Street in the hilly Port Arthur side of Thunder Bay. The house was within walking distance to St. Bernard’s School where Catharine and I attended grade school.

We went for many family walks around Centennial and Chippewa Parks, visit friends and play board games like Michigan rummy. Mom and Dad made learning arithmetic fun by playing Cribbage. 15-2, 15-4, 15-6 and a pair is 8.

One family ritual I looked forward to each week was Sunday morning breakfast. After church Dad cooked bacon and eggs while Catharine and I set the dining room table with the good china and silverware. Then we ate our meal with fresh Irish soda bread that Mom had baked on Saturday. We only ate at the dining room table on special occasions. Eating Sunday breakfast in the dining room made this a special event I enjoyed immensely.

One Saturday afternoon in July, 1966, a year after moving to Thunder Bay, when I was seven, Mom noticed I was closing my left eye to catch a ball. She asked me why.

“So I just see one,” I replied.

She examined at me closely and saw my left eye had turned in slightly which gave me double vision. I adapted by closing my left eye so I would see only one image. My friends thought it was really cool that I had double vision. Some of them asked, “How come you can see two of everything?” They could only see one.

That August my parents took me to see an eye surgeon in Thunder Bay. During the month since Mom noticed my left eye had turned in to when I saw the eye surgeon, both eyes had turned in making me cross-eyed. The eye surgeon concluded that the problem had little to do with my vision. He said my eyes turned in because the outer lateral eye muscles were paralyzed. He suspected a brain tumour and referred me to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto for confirmation.

Mom and Dad were deeply troubled by this diagnosis. They downplayed the seriousness of it to me. My parents enthusiastically told me the eye surgeon wanted me to see a doctor in Toronto. They knew I liked to go places so they pretended to be excited that we were going on a trip. I was excited too.

My parents brought me to Sick Kids in Toronto in September, 1966, where received many pokes and prods from doctors. The one test I remember was the air and dye studies. The doctors put me under a general anaesthetic. Then they injected air and dye into my spinal column and moved my head around while they made their observations. During the procedure I stopped breathing and they had to resuscitate me. This meant they were unable to complete the test which left the results inconclusive. Even with incomplete results the doctors concluded that they could find no evidence of a brain tumour and could offer no explanation as to why I was cross-eyed. When I woke up my head was like a helium balloon bobbing up and down tethered to a string. I felt totally disconnected for a week.

In May of 1967, we moved into a new house that Mom and Dad built on Whalen Street. I turned eight in June. In July we vacationed in Montreal with Grandma, Dad’s mother, who came from England to visit. After we spendt a great time at Expo ’67 in Montreal, during a stopover in Toronto on the way home, my parents dropped a bomb shell. Mom and I would be staying behind while I had eye surgery to correct my double vision. I was upset they hadn’t told me sooner. Mom and Dad didn’t want the thought of the surgery to spoil my trip.

The next day I was admitted to Sick Kids and had eye surgery the day after. The eye surgeon shortened the muscles to pull my eyes straight. I have not been able to move my eyes from side to side since. I spent three more nights in hospital, two nights with Mom at a hotel in Toronto and then we flew back to Thunder Bay. I was home, seeing only one image again and I was glad it was over. I was back to my regular self playing like all the other kids. For the next three years I had no health problems.