Taking Stock – My Disabilities
In June of 1976 the doctors at Princess Margaret Hospital were satisfied my tumour had been successfully controlled. Tumours have a habit of growing back or showing up in different parts of the body. Mine never did. I was treated for my tumour and that was that. The condition my body was left in after I recovered from my radiation therapy reaction hasn’t changed in 40 years. Except, of course, that I am 40 years older and all the effects of aging that happen normally to everyone else are happening to me – those little aches and pains, grey hair and bifocals.
It never occurred to me until writing this memoir that the doctors would only say they controlled my brain tumour and not that they killed my tumour as I do. I guess they could never be 100% certain that they eradicated it but only hopeful that they had. After 40 tumour-free years I can safely proclaim my brain tumour dead and gone.
As I recovered from my radiation therapy reaction everything I did was by conscious thought – every hand movement and every step. I remembered doing all of these things because I had to consciously think about them. When I started doing things automatically again I’d be checking myself to see if I had done it – ordinary things like pick up a mug and put it in the cupboard, turn a light off or push a door closed behind me.
After I recovered from my radiation therapy reaction in 1974 I had an acquired brain injury which left my body in the following condition:
- Facial paralysis
- 85% ability to swallow
- Speech impediment
- Ataxia – dexterity, balance
- Muscle wasting – Upper calves, Fronts of thighs, Triceps and Lower back
- Progressive hearing loss
- Expanding my chest
- Facial paralysis
My brain tumour damaged the cranial nerve controlling my facial muscles. The radiation therapy together with the reaction killed the nerve. Even though I lost all movement in my face I kept the feeling. I will never make any facial expressions like raise my eyebrows, frown, squint or have a big, wide smile.
I lost the ability to press my lips together to close my mouth while I eat and drink. Eating involves cutting up food, putting it in my mouth and pinching my lips together while I chew and swallow. If I don’t the food falls out as I chew. Pinching my lips together only approximated closing my mouth. There are times when bits of what I’m chewing fall out. I try to be diligent to prevent this from happening but it does now and again. I also make more eating noises when chewing and swallowing. I try my best but some of it just can’t be helped. Have you ever tried swallowing with your mouth open? It’s hard but you can.
I don’t have a wall of muscle in each side of my face to keep what I’m chewing in the centre of my mouth. As a consequence food collects in my cheeks. Along with pinching my lips together, I’m constantly pushing the sides of my face with my fingers to get the food out of my cheeks back into the centre so I can chew and swallow it.
Drinking from a cup is a similar procedure. I partially pinch my lips together with my left hand to approximate the form I need to drink. Then I put the cup to my lower lip supported by my thumb, pour some of whatever I’m drinking into my mouth and pinch my lips together before I take the cup away. If I don’t pinch my mouth closed right away the liquid runs down my chin.
Nobody told me, “Brian now that you have facial paralysis this is how you eat and drink.” I doubt anybody could have. It’s my solution to the problem. I hope sharing my method can help someone deal with a similar situation. After 40 years of eating and drinking this way it’s automatic. I would rather not have to do this but if I want to be as neat as I can be, and I do, this is life. My method of eating and drinking makes many people visibly uncomfortable. Their discomfort makes me uncomfortable.
Facial paralysis does not allow me to close my eyelids so that they meet. This gap means I constantly have dry eyes and need to put drops in them daily. I can open and close my upper eyelids but they are weak. Because I don’t have cheek muscles pushing my lower eyelids up I can’t scrunch my eyes shut. I have to cover my eyes when washing my hair or I get shampoo in the gap between my eyelids.
- 85% ability to swallow
During 1973 and into 1974 I had to chew food well and wash it down my throat more than swallow it. By the end of 1974, 85% of my ability to swallow returned. Things I can’t chew well such as raw vegetables (carrots, broccoli and cauliflower) or dry rice get stuck in my throat. I have to wash them down with more than a sip of whatever I’m drinking. You never see me chewing on carrot sticks at a party. Celery sticks are okay. They’re a bit stringy but they go down well.
- Speech impediment
After my radiation therapy reaction recovery I was left with a tongue that was a half step slower than average. I have to pronounce all sounds of speech with my tongue. This impedes my speech. Not being able to alternate between lips and tongue to pronounce words further slows my speech. Over time I learned to mimic the bilabial “b,” “m” and “p” sounds closely with my tongue. The fact that I don’t move my lips to pronounce these letters confuses people at least at first. This adds to my communication problem.
Ataxia: The impairment or inability to co-ordinate voluntary muscle movements. It is symptomatic of some central nervous system disorders or injuries.
Ataxia – dexterity
I always knew my dexterity was slower than most people’s because of the damage caused by my brain tumour and treatment. Not until I was 52 did I get it tested. It’s now official. According to the General Aptitude Test Battery results I am half speed. That is I flip ten pegs to the average person’s twenty in the allotted time. Although my hands are slower I can manipulate most objects fairly well. This affects my hand writing which makes it less legible. I found one of my Grade 5 school workbooks. I think I had better hand writing back then. My top typing speed is 20 words a minute. Not bad. I keep practicing but my fingers don’t seem to want to move any faster.
As I said every hand movement I made after my recovery required a conscious thought to control it. I could reach for and pick up a cup as I had always done but it had become clumsy. So I closely watched the cup as I concentrated on my task. I consciously thought out the hand movements involved in reaching for the cup, grasping hold of it and picking it up. Then I slowly reached for the cup. I did this for every object I used. After a year of practice I became fairly proficient at manipulating most objects.
The increasing loss of balance was one of the symptoms which lead to the diagnosis of my brain tumour. My balance was poor when I went to Toronto in 1972. It got worse during my radiation therapy reaction in 1973.
Over time I adapted to it. I observed after learning how to walk that one important aspect of maintaining my balance is where I placed my feet when walking or turning on the spot. When I lost the ability to walk I forgot where to place my feet so I wouldn’t lose my balance. Paying close attention I learned proper foot placement. Because of the ataxia I’m slower placing my feet in the correct position to prevent losing my balance. Improving the muscle tone in my legs and lower back helped improve my balance as well.
My sense of balance is poor and will always be. The neurological damage that caused it is permanent. I’m always watching where and how I can best walk over different terrains. I’m frustrated by my mobility problem at times but I only have to think back to my walker and wheelchair to snap me out of it.
One fear I have is being pulled over by the police and asked to walk a straight line – heel to toe. I can’t do it regardless of my state of sobriety. The same goes for blowing on a breathalyzer straw. I’ve never been asked to do either and hope I never am.
Muscle wasting – Upper calves
The muscle wasting in my upper calves was one of the symptoms of my brain tumour noted by the doctors in 1972. As this muscle wasting developed I found it harder to hop as in Jumping Jacks.
- Fronts of thighs
The wasting of these muscle groups occurred during my radiation therapy reaction. When I was walking again, and felt confident enough to run (trot), I found when I got up to a certain speed I’d trip and fall over. “What did I trip on?” I’d ask myself as I looked around. I realized that the thigh muscles weren’t strong enough to lift my knee fast enough to take the next stride. This is still the case. Weakness of the thigh muscles contributes to my balance problem.
I first noticed how weak my triceps were after my radiation therapy reaction recovery when I was next door shooting hoops with a friend. I’d take the basketball in my hands. When I threw it up to the hoop by pushing it I could only throw it three quarters of the way.
- Lower back
It was during my radiation therapy reaction recovery when I first found that my lower back muscles were weak. I pulled a lower back muscle lifting something fairly light. I could only be down on my hands and knees while gardening for 20 minutes. After shoveling snow my lower back would hurt and seize up and I had to lie down to rest it. Not until I was 50 years old did I think of strengthening my abs to do some of the work for my lower back. It really helped.
Light weight training and daily exercise helped strengthen all of my muscles but the muscle groups that had wasting are weak. I didn’t get stretch marks until my radiation therapy reaction and being on the decadron medication. The only places I have stretch marks are over the muscle groups where the wasting occurred.
Progressive hearing loss
The condition my body was left in after my radiation therapy reaction has pretty much stayed the same except for my hearing. When I was twelve I remember not understanding some of the words spoken to me even though I had no trouble hearing them. Thinking back it was a symptom caused by my brain tumour that was considered to be me not paying attention. My tumour was starting to press on the auditory (8th cranial) nerve. The radiation therapy caused partial destruction of the myelin sheath around the auditory cranial nerve which further restricted its action. I’ve had progressive hearing loss ever since. My hearing in both ears has degraded to the point where I’m dependent on hearing aids to function.
Expanding my chest
By the time I was diagnosed and treated for my tumour I had lost the ability to expand my chest. During 1974 it gradually returned. It’s the only body function I lost or was losing to my tumour that I fully regained.
In 1973 at one point I had lost most of my dexterity and co-ordination so that I could barely feed myself, swallow, or speak. I get tense remembering my frustration and heartbreak as I gradually lost my independence. I regained these functions in time, albeit not fully, but I am aware of what might have been. Sometimes I ask myself, “How close did I come to staying that way?” With the help of family and friends and a lot of determination I was able to cope through the ordeal of my brain tumour and recovery. I put my walker aside and I got out of my wheelchair. My sense of balance is as poor now as it was then and always will be. The muscle wasting in parts of my legs, arms and lower back has left those muscles weak. I will always need to use a handrail to steady myself going up and down stairs. At times I feel that I never left that wheelchair far behind. Still I got out of it and I never want to have to sit in one again.
As I take stock of my life I ask myself, “If this didn’t happen to me what would life have been like?” Would I have gone through my teen years like most teenagers? Maybe I would have been married in my 20s and soon be celebrating my 25th wedding anniversary. I might have had a family and possibly have grandchildren by now. Or maybe I’d have remained a bachelor. I may be living half way round the world and never been a chemist or entrepreneur. The possibilities are endless. Things may have been different for me but the way everything has turned out just might be the way they should be.
In the mid 1970s biofeedback captured the public’s interest and became my hope to overcome my facial paralysis. I dreamt of making facial expressions again and most of all to be able to smile. A doctor in Los Angeles was well known for his expertise with this technique. In late May of 1975, Mom, Dad, Catharine and I were en route to California. We stayed at a hacienda-style hotel called Griswold’s in Claremont, a suburb of LA, where the doctor had his practice. It was a two storey building and the elevator was outside. The vending machine beside the elevator sold Canada Dry soft drinks. I had never seen a vending machine selling Canada Dry soft drinks in Canada.
Biofeedback: A training technique whereby an electromyograph is used to measure electrical impulses produced by muscle movement. The impulses are displayed on a screen to the person being monitored in order to assist that individual to improve muscle function.
At his office the California doctor stuck three electrode needles in each side of my face. Each needle hurt like sticking an IV needle in my hand. My face felt like a pin cushion. The electrodes were wired to an electromyograph to measure the electrical impulses produced by muscle movement in my face. My facial muscles were paralyzed so they didn’t produce electrical impulses. Since they didn’t produce electrical impulses biofeedback wouldn’t work for me. After watching the screen while adjusting the electrodes the doctor decided he couldn’t do anything for me. I was disappointed. I had imagined myself with a big smile again and placed all my hope in this doctor being able to help me.
Despite the disappointment we spent some tourist time there. We visited Disneyland for a day and toured Universal Studios the next. It was really cool to see how Hollywood shot movie scenes and made things appear a certain way for the camera. There were no sides on the tour bus. Every now and then a man dressed as Frankenstein suddenly poked his head into the bus to give us a scare. He got a lot of gasps followed by laughs and I laughed with them. That evening we drove around Rodeo Drive to find the homes of the movie stars. Next day was the long flight home.
I turned 16 in June of 1975. Like most 16-year-olds I wanted to get my driver’s licence and I vowed to get it before I turned 17. I passed the application for my learner’s permit. Now I could practice driving with a licensed driver with me, usually Mom or Dad, and take driving lessons. I took lessons with two driving schools and got a lot of practice driving my parents around town. When the instructor thought I was ready we booked a driving test. After a third test I got my licence in May of 1976 one week before I turned 17.
Mom was waiting for me when I got back with the good news. She gave me a big hug and disappeared for a moment while I sat down relieved at the kitchen table. She came back with a set of car keys that had been waiting for me since my first test. I proudly put them on my key ring.
Driving afforded me the ability to expand my world. I could go places, see friends, meet new people and run errands. Most importantly I experienced different situations that the limited mobility I had in those years after my recovery would not have allowed. This was especially poignant to me because I well remembered what losing my independence to my failing health was like while I was in a wheelchair.
My health issues continued. Another consequence of my facial paralysis was that my lower lip tissue stretched so that it curled out and down because of the lack of muscle support. By July of 1975, I was getting leather lip where the lip skin grows back into the mouth. I saw a plastic surgeon who proposed a simple procedure done under a local anesthetic. He would cut a wedge out along the inside of my lower lip which would raise it up when the two sides of the gap were sown together. This seemed like a good solution. The only drawback was that since my lip tissue would keep stretching and curling down I had to have this surgery every four to five years.
The following October I was back in Toronto at the Wellesley Hospital for the surgery. I was brought into a small OR while still in my street clothes. I got up and laid flat on the operating table and they covered me with a green sterile sheet. The surgeon marked out on my lip where he had to cut. Then came the needle. Starting on my right he poked my lip and injected the freezing. EXCRUTIATING! I gasped each time he injected the freezing as I laid there as rigid as a board trying my best to endure the pain. It took five pokes to freeze my lip all the way across. Next he picked up a scalpel in his right hand and forceps in his left. He started to cut out the wedge pinching the end of it with the forceps. As he cut along the lines I could see an ever increasing length of tissue that was once part of my lip. Blood trickled down my throat. After he cut the wedge out he proceeded to stitch me up. The freezing was wearing off as he was finishing just as he said it would. I felt the last few stitches going in. It took half an hour from start to finish. I walked out of the hospital accompanied by Mom with a swollen, bloody, stitched–up lip. My lip healed during the next two weeks.
Over 22 years I had this procedure four times – two at the Wellesley Hospital in Toronto and two at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Thunder Bay. I still wonder if cutting with the scalpel would have hurt less than injecting the freezing.
I never gave up on the hope of regaining the ability to smile. So in 1977 I was excited to discover a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio had developed a new surgical technique to help people with facial paralysis. It involved rerouting a sensory nerve from the front of the neck and attaching it to the obicularis oris muscle surrounding the mouth. If it worked I would be able to move my lips again. But there was a trade off. I would lose the feeling in an area of my throat in exchange for regaining the use of my lips. It was a trade off I was willing to make.
Mom, Dad and I flew to Cleveland to see the doctor. He said he could do the procedure the next day. If I wanted to go ahead with it he had to know soon so he could book the OR. I had an hour to decide. At 17 this was the first time the decision to have surgery or not was mine. It was a huge decision to make on the spot. As I thought about it I said to myself, “Why am I here? He can do it tomorrow so let’s go for it.” My answer was an enthusiastic, “Yes.” I had to get pre-op bloodwork, have an ECG and be at the clinic for 6:00 the next morning.
To get the obicularis oris muscle to function fully the doctor would have to take a nerve from the right side of my throat and try to attach it to the right side of the obicularis oris muscle. Then he would do the same with the left. He would do both sides if the right was successful. When I woke up after surgery only the right side of my throat was bandaged. The surgery was unsuccessful. Since the muscles in my face had lost their nerve supply five years before they had wasted away. The doctor could not find any trace of the obicularis oris muscle to attach the nerve to so he put it back in my throat. It took six months for the feeling to come back.
It was the second try to regain at least some movement in my face. Again I was disappointed. Biofeedback couldn’t help me and the surgery in Cleveland was unsuccessful. My quest to find someone who could give me facial movement was like Dorothy searching for the Wizard of Oz. But I didn’t want a heart of courage – just a smile.
“Someday I’ll get my smile back.” I was confidence that another surgical technique would be developed.
That fall Aunt Josie, Mom’s sister, and Uncle Jimmy came to visit us from London, England. I was apprehensive. My appearance had changed so much since I saw them seven years earlier when Mom took me overseas to visit the relatives when I was ten. I didn’t want them to see me until my facial muscles had regenerated and I was back to looking the way I was then. When we met I was no different to them. Their acceptance encouraged me to come to terms with the changes in my body. I had adapted to my balance and co-ordination issues but I hadn’t fully accepted my facial paralysis. I still clung to the hope that somehow the cranial nerve would regenerate and I would get the movement in my face back. The cold, hard fact was the nerve would never regenerate. My Aunt and Uncle’s acceptance of me, despite the changes in my body, helped me accept who I had become.
“I’ll have facial paralysis for the rest of my life!”
The thought fell on me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t grasp a sense of how long that was, but I accepted that facial paralysis would always be part of me.