Farley Mowat

LU Here I Come

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Although the surgery in Cleveland wasn’t successful I succeeded in becoming a student at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay in September of 1977. Some of my friends started university that year. I wanted to try university. Since I had been out of school for more than three years for reasons beyond my control Lakehead University allowed me to take at least one course. If I did reasonably well I could register in a program at LU the following September as a mature student. My goal was to get into the Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Biology program. I enrolled in first year calculus, a requisite course, and Astronomy, a science elective. I could drive myself to classes but I worried the walk from the parking lot to lectures would be too far for me. It was a bit of a hike at first but with practice it became routine.

The high school correspondence courses had provided me with all the education I needed for university except Chemistry. I took a non-credit course at LU as well which taught high school plus some first year university chemistry. There I met Terry. He was from Toronto and had a BA in Psychology from the University of Toronto. He came to Thunder Bay to take a Masters degree in Psychology and also to study science. We quickly became good friends. Terry had a wild streak in him. He was eight years older than me and had seen much more of the world. Terry possessed a natural propensity for making friends many of whom I got to know.

I was still finding my way out of the house when Terry took me under his wing. He made sure I got out to experience the world. Terry took me to a bar one night and got me drunk. I could barely stand up. Another time he set me up with a date, Anna, a nursing student. Our date didn’t lead to second but she and I liked it when crossed paths at LU. Terry knew how to throw some great parties all of which I remember well. He was also licensed to fly small planes. Now and againTerry rented a Cessna C127 from the Thunder Bay Flying Club and take me up flying. When the plane was in level flight he let me steer. I felt so free and in control of myself as I flew the plane over Thunder Bay and the countryside. The coolest was to see my house from 10,000 feet up. When we landed I was eager for our next flight.

I squeaked through Calculus with 51% and got a respectable 68% in Astronomy. My marks were good enough to make me a university student in September of 1978. I have to say that Dad’s encouragement and his affiliation with Lakehead University as Professor of Medical Laboratory Sciences had a lot to do with my chance to try out for LU.

I enrolled in the Biology program at Lakehead University as a part time student and took three credits. Full time students take five. Mom and Dad thought that three courses would be all I could handle. They were right. My writing was still slower than average. The amount of reading required for just those three courses overtaxed my eyes. Sometimes I came back from LU after classes and asked Mom if she would read a section of the textbook to me. We sat at the dining room table across from each other just as we did for high school and she read the textbook as I covered my eyes with my hands to rest them. I passed my courses and together with the two I’d taken the previous year I had the five credits I needed to complete the first year of the Biology program requirements.

I took a course in the spring and another in the summer. These were intensive full courses that went five hours a day Monday to Friday. It was a gruelling overload of information each day. But the classes were small, we helped each other and I earned a credit in just six weeks.

Armed with my two second year credits I registered for another three courses in the fall. In April of 1980, I completed the second year of the program.  Once more I took a course in each of the spring and summer terms.

During that summer I had to say good-bye to Terry. For the three years he was in Thunder Bay Terry was a regular around my home. His colourful personality filled the house as soon as he walked in the door. Terry was my good and constant companion during his time in Thunder Bay. With his MA degree in hand Terry bought an old car. He packed all his belongings in it, which were not much more than his clothes and guitar, and headed off on his next adventure. I missed him when he left. Terry moved west to Edmonton, got married and settled down.

In September I started the last three courses for the BSc degree. At the convocation ceremony on May 31, 1981, I received a BSc degree in Biology from Lakehead University. I had accomplished what some people thought I would never live to do.

I wanted to continue on to become a graduate student and earn a Master of Science (MSc) degree in Biology. I had to have an Honours BSc (HBSc) to do that. I needed a course average of at least 70% to get into the honours or forth year, but I pulled up short with 68%. I was determined. I studied for another year at LU as a full time student to get a four year BSc pass degree in Biology in May, 1982.

Four years of university had taught me about plants, animals, anatomy and physiology, but I still didn’t have a skill to find work. In September of 1982, I enrolled in the two year Medical Laboratory Technologist diploma program at the Thunder Bay Institute of Medical Technology. It was a requirement for the HBSc in Medical Laboratory Sciences program at Lakehead University. In May, 1984, I received my diploma and enrolled in the HBSc program at LU. I had all the courses for the degree from my BSc in Biology except the core courses. In a year and a half I had an HBSc in Medical Laboratory Sciences. I set my sights on the MSc in Biology degree.

I enrolled in the Master of Science in Biology program at LU in September, 1984, and worked as a teaching assistant. The pay wasn’t great but it paid my tuition and gave me some pocket money. On graduation day in May of 1986, I received my MSc degree in Biology. I walked in procession into the convocation hall. When I stopped I had a front row seat in front of the podium. Dr. David Suzuki addressed the graduates. He talked about how hard we worked to earn our degrees and that we should take pride what we had achieved. Next Farley Mowat spoke. As I listened I was transported back to the desperate times of 1973 and the evenings I lay tucked into bed listening to Dad reading his stories. I clearly realized then just how far I had come. I held my MSc degree knowing how hard I had worked for it, how determined I had stayed and how much adversity I had overcome to attain my goal. I was definitely proud of my achievement.

While I was a Teaching Assistant I thought I would like to teach in a university. To do that I needed a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree, but LU didn’t have a PhD program. In the fall after I graduated with my MSc degree Dad was invited to speak at a conference. He met a former colleague from London, Ontario, who knew of an opportunity. He suggested that I could work at St. Joseph’s Hospital lab in London where he worked. I could try some courses at the University of Western Ontario in London and possibly get into a PhD program.

During the year after I graduated with my MSc I applied for work in the medical labs in all the hospitals in Thunder Bay but to no avail. The opportunity Dad’s colleague in London proposed seemed better and better as the months passed. London offered me both a job in a medical lab and a chance to earn a PhD.

I planned on moving to London in late August of 1987 but I was faced with a challenge once again. I woke up one morning just before the move to discover that I was completely deaf in my right ear. When I had my hearing tested I was told that my deafness was caused by damage to the auditory nerve. They couldn’t offer a solution to the problem. I didn’t know until then that my tumour and the radiation therapy damaged the myelin sheath around the nerve. The damage impaired its function and started a progressive hearing loss. I carried on hearing only through my left ear.

Despite the loss of hearing in my right ear I packed my belongings and moved to London. I enrolled in a physiology course at Western and started part time work at St. Joseph’s Hospital. I worked there for two and a half years as a technologist in the hospital medical laboratory with a great group of people. After three years of trying I was no closer to getting into a doctoral program at Western than when I had first travelled to London. The professors I approached about doing a PhD with them kept citing their lack of research funds.

In June, 1990, I moved back to Thunder Bay with my tail between my legs. The London experience was the first time a lot of work and perseverance didn’t get me to where I wanted to go. I was burned out. I couldn’t push anymore. There was some good that came out of my tenure in London. It was a time of much personal growth. I lived by myself independent of my parents. And I clearly demonstrated that I could organize my life and take care of myself. After all I was 30 years old.

When I got back from London Dad had a plan. He proposed that we should start an environmental laboratory business. I had the chemistry skills and Dad was confident I could do it. We took a chance and created Tara Scientific Laboratories.

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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!