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!