Other sites by this author:
Save Canada’s Last Wild Mustangs
was not a good year for me. At age 37, I was an adult student in 2nd year of a three year Ba degree in political science at Simon Fraser U. Burnaby, B.C., Canada.
I’d just come home from school one ordinary afternoon, around 5:30 P.M. I’d flipped on the TV, and flopped back onto my futon couch. Time to veg-out for a while. I must have begun drifting off to sleep, unaware. The ringing phone startled me out of my drowse. I nearly jumped out of my skin!
Then it HIT ME. The worst f—-g head pain you could ever imagine! Felt like a speeding locomotive had just smashed broadside into my head! I was blinded, in agonizing pain, writhing on the floor, heart thumping like crazy. I couldn’t understand what had happened. I’d never had headaches. In my blindness I groped my way to the phone and dialed 911. With my heart thumping so hard, I told the operator that I must be having a heart attack!
I barely remember signing the Consent Form for the surgery. I was in too much pain to make a rational decision, but I signed my consent anyway. That’s one autograph I wish I could take back! If I’d known then what I know now about Life After a Brain Aneurysm, I’d have said “No thanks. Just let me die.”
Vaguely, I recall the doc saying something about 25 per cent of patients don’t survive this surgery. But he offered me absolutely no advice on what my long-term prognosis might be. Why didn’t the doc advise me that my whole life would change, that I would undergo organic personality change, [DSM – IV classifies the personality changes into labile, disinhibited, aggressive, apathetic, paranoid, other, combined and unspecified subtypes.]; that I would become chronically depressed, [Dysthymia:Neurotic depression; Dysthymic disorder; Chronic depression.]; that I would need psychiatric care for the rest of my life? Why was the doc silent about the collateral damage to follow my surgery? WHY?
I was a late bloomer in life. My unhappy childhood set me up for that, it delayed all of my personal development.. I’d always been an avid reader – I still have my first proper reading book, which I re-read frequently to this day! About Rusty the little red dachshund and his farm animal friends, who go on an adventure to see the ocean. God, I loved that story so much!
I was a child of the 60′s. I was really good in school, especially in English and literature. I knew early on that I was gifted: I never had to study for school, I could write essays in my sleep; and exams were a fun exercise. I also knew that the writer’s life would be for me. At age 10, I inherited somebody’s old bang-and-crash Remington typewriter. I was writing a book about The Beatles.
Later on, I had my own weekly column in our town’s local newspaper. People swelled me up with pride, telling me how much they enjoyed reading my column.
A fractured and dysfunctional family life meant that I had no career guidance. I was not exposed to the concept of working at what you love to do. My weekly column in the town paper was a freebie, I got no money for it.
Timeline → 1970′s, 80′s I left home just as soon as it was legal. Headed West, to the sea. (Like Rusty!). Hitched all over North and Meso-America. Years went by. I worked in desultory jobs. Smoked too much pot. Dropped acid. Grew my hair.
More crummy jobs. Clock is ticking. After I’d had enough of THAT lifestyle, I realized that I ought to do something worthwhile with my life. Life was passing me by. I was entering that “certain age group,” the “Zoomers.” I might not be immortal!
I really don’t know who or what planted in my mind the career idea of getting PAID to write. But there it was. Nothing else would do.
Fast Forward → Nineteen-ninety. I need a higher education. My work was cut out for me:
√ Degree#1: Ba, political science (I’d always been a politics freak. Radical politics, if not just “Left.”)…done√
√ Degree #2: Master’s, journalism…done√
I breezed through the halls of higher learning. I couldn’t identify with the young student population surrounding me: Gen-X’ers and Tweener’s. They seemed to be such uninspired, incurious materialists. And most of them were functionally illiterate! The literacy deficit amongst these young people just floored me!
Now it’s back to The Present → 1991, and I’m lying in agony on the floor, holding my screaming head. I’m blinded. Has Fate finally caught up with me? Is this Curtains? Gee, my life went by fast, I thought to myself. Unfair.
Nothing’s been the same since.
At that time, brain surgeons had only one, traditional procedure for treating a brain aneurysm, called “clipping.” (If you’re not sure what, exactly, IS a brain aneurysm, go [here] if you’re in a hurry – all is revealed there. Otherwise, keep on reading here!)
Basically, the surgeons break into your skull using a power saw and gripper, and dig through to the evil intruder. where they then snap a tiny titanium clip around it. That stops the hemhorrhaging. Watch a VIDEO OF CLIPPING A BRAIN ANEURYSM:
You usually survive. I did. In a manner of speaking, anyway.
In recent years a new less invasive surgical procedure for treating a brain aneurysm has been pioneered, endovascular coiling. In “coiling,” a hollow plastic tube (catheter) is inserted into an artery, usually in your groin, and is threaded through your body to the aneurysm. The surgeon then uses a guide wire to push a soft platinum wire through the catheter and into the aneurysm. The sprung wire coil goes up inside the aneurysm and disrupts the blood flow, causing the blood to clot. The clotting seals off the aneurysm from the artery.
Both procedures come with risks: bleeding in the brain, or loss of blood flow to the brain. The endovascular coil is less invasive and may be initially safer, but it also has a higher risk of subsequent re-bleeding.
Personally, I wish the coiling procedure had been available at the time of my injury. I believe it would have delivered me a much happier outcome.
Upon my release from hospital after my clipping surgery, my surgeon wheeled me out through the hospital doors, and gave me a big congratulatory slap on the back.”There you go, Will! Good as New!” he cheered. I believed him.
PEOPLE! NEVER, Ever, Ever accept a brush-off from doctors after you’ve undergone serious surgery. NEVER! The “brush-off” happens all too often. Dr. Dongwoo John Chang discusses on his blog, “Surviving a Brain Aneurysm Hinges On the Right Treatment,” the arch importance of getting the right treatment DURING AND AFTER brain aneurysm surgery:
How would you feel if your neurosurgeon just turned you over to your family doctor for aftercare? Well, that is what happens in many cases of brain aneurysm management. It’s sad but true, but that’s the influence of industry on the continuity of patient care.
As surgeons, once we cut someone, we generally have them as patients for life. Chances are your aneurysm will be coiled by an interventional neuroradiologist, who is quite qualified, but not trained to take care of you post-procedure, writes Dr. Chang.
My surgeon had done exactly what Dr. Chang warns about: He merrily rolled me out of the hospital, then it was “I saved your life. NOW, GO GET LOST !“ I was thereafter in the overwhelmed and under-skilled hands of my GP …… SonofaBitch!
Such negligence would amount to mal-practice if it weren’t so systemic, virtually the common practice of all brain surgeons! Why? Why do brain surgeons routinely avoid post-op follow-up? Why do they obscure from their patients any realistic outlook for their future lives, a long-term prognosis? A description of possible post-op deficits they may experience. Answer: The docs have a secret: Most of the time, they’re just guessing. Anything could happen. They don’t want to admit that. It’s What They Don’t Tell You at the Hospital.
This all happened to me in→ 1991/92, midstream of my Ba degree, which I was killing, anyway, and continued to slay post-op, having a wonderful old time getting straight A’s. I’ve always found school easy and effortless. My aneurysm emergency and hospital visit had caused me to miss only one school semester. I was even sitting up in bed, writing essays to catch-up from where I’d left off so suddenly!
My intellectual powers remained totally intact, post-op. But during those final years of school I began seeing the campus psychiatrist, with depression and anxiety.
I sat a three-day neuro-psych workout at the university psychology department to test for any cognitive deficits.
Now, I know it’s not nice to boast…but I scored “Superior Intellect” on those tests. I already knew that. But it’s a groove to see it on paper!
By → 1995, I’d I completed my education successfully, in blazing technicolor. In retrospect, I see now that my academic success has really always been owing to my facility in writing, and little else. What is a university education, but writing, and writing and writing? My strong suit. Hey! I’m no Brain Surgeon! Ha ha!
After graduating, I went bursting out into the world of job-hunting.
Up, up and Awaaaay!
I hustled daily. I got my name into newspaper editors’ rolodexes all over town. Such networking got me occasional, precious freelance assignments: covering for sick reporters or writing one- offs for unusually heavy news days (always happens around elections: Gravy Train time for freelancers!). From one of my regular freelance patron/editors, I scored one really fine assignment. I was sent to cover the 1994 national convention of one of our federal political parties, the Reform Party. That was my first experience rubbing shoulders with the big-time boys and girls – the big names we hear on radio and TV news daily.
Further, I landed one interesting and lucrative contract gig, writing treacly tourism blather online for a travel website – a site now long-gone in the Internet bubble burst of the 90′s - singing the praises of anything and everything Vancouver. Fairly cool gig, though. With my official “press” credentials I got “comp” tickets for every event imaginable. I saw touring Broadway shows, rock concerts, sports events, etc. etc All free, often with backstage passes to interview the artists. The owner of the website over-paid his stable of writers grossly! Fifty-five cents/word! Who-the-hell pays THAT much! Vancouver’s biggest contractors of freelance magazine writers were paying only 35 cents/word at the time. My pay cheque likely explained why the website went broke! His loss, my gain.
Still, freelance writing never pays the rent, even in a booming, prosperous metropolis the size of Vancouver. It’s a bleak, hungry existence, freelancing is. But even with my brain injury, I hustled up enough work to almost survive for seven years in the desert. At the time, I hadn’t known about bankruptcy. That came later!
My seven years of energetic post-injury hustling describes exactly the common syndrome we “survivors“ find ouselves trapped in. ["Survivors" - that's the lingo used in the brain injury community to describe ourselves. I find it to be slightly delusional.] The tendency is for survivors to self-wish and self-propel themselves back to their old, healthy, strong selves. At least they THINK it’s real. But it’s not real. In my case, I was able to sustain the delusional Superman act for eight years, which concluded with my ultimate triumph :
→ Nineteen-ninety-eight. I LANDED my ♥Dream Job♥ – City Hall reporter on a broadsheet newspaper. ♥My Dream job♥. The dream lasted less than two years…
…I excelled at my work. I was the hottest news reporter in town. I was a Super Reporter! Needless to say, my employer was pleased with my terrific work! Hey! It was nothing for Superman!
One day my editor called me into his office. An AMAZING promotion was coming my way. I was to replace him as editor, as he was about to retire. I thought to myself. Hmmm…ok. Good. But – oddly, in retrospect - I felt no particular excitement or anticipation. In fact, I felt absolutely nothing. My mood went totally flat. I went home and quietly, calmy attempted to kill myself. I took about 200 pills: Seventy-five prescription sleeping pills; 80 valiums, a handful of Tylenol #3s, a dozen anti-nauseant pills (puking would be so messy and smelly!) I chased the pills down with a fast quart of vodka. I was out cold!
I slept the sleep of the dead for the next 29 hours. I have no memory of waking up and somehow calling 911! Just a total blank. What I DO remember is that I barfed and barfed and barfed all over my apartment. Gross! I have a dim memory of an ambulance ride. I have no memory of the docs pumping my stomach. (probably just as well, that!) Shortly they had me settled into a cozy bed in the Intensive Care Unit, and I began feeling more-or-less conscious. I lived there, in ICU for one week. I had weird electrodes stuck all over my body attached by wires to a machine with green glowing lights. I assumed the green glowing lights must be signs that I was still alive. Dammit! I couldn’t even kill myself right!
One day, after my one-week ICU stay, a nurse came along and said to me, “OK pack-up your stuff and follow me.” Huh? Where am I going? I trundled along behind the nurse, my goofy hospital slippers and PJ’s slipping and sliding up, down and all around. Embarrassing. Then I saw it. The big double doors with a security key box to one side. Gulp. The Psychiatric Wing!
Resistance was Futile. This was really happening.
And thus began the Education of Will Travis
The Fall was inevitable. If only I had known! My suicide attempt was Lesson #1. I had finally been “outed” as damaged goods – a survivor of brain injury, yes, but unstable and unemployable. That was the end of my career. The news waits for no one. News reporters don’t get special “suicide” days off. I had dropped the ball badly, and my ♥dream job♥ was now Θ NO JOB.Θ
Lesson #1 opened my eyes to my disability. There are six little letters that spell tragedy for me: s.t.r.e.s.s. News reporting was a very high-stress job, but I believed I was up for it. That is, until I hit the wall of my own tolerance for stress.
My case was classic, truly. I chose to believe that there was nothing wrong with me post-op. That delusion was utterly irresistible. Most survivors experience it.
Mine was a good long run of delusional thinking, at least, the eight years after my aneurysm.
In the psych ward at the hospital my eyes were finally opened to the reality that my brain was, well, actually, really injured. Everything changed with that realization.
Followed, immediate retirement on my Canada Pension Disability Plan, an insured social benefit based on my lifetime earnings/contributions to the plan. Decades of mental health assistance were to follow, too. Some helpful, some, disappointing. I’m not sure I believe in “cognitive therapy” anymore. At least, not the way it’s practised by many mediocre so-called “therapists.” I visited dozens of psychologists and psychiatrists who left me cold. Many of them seemed to be running patients through their in-out turnstiles as rapidly as possible just to get their billings as high as possible. The health of patients seemed to be their least consideration! I thanked God, or Deus, or whoever/whatever is OUT THERE for our Canadian universal health care system. My injury, the surgery, the dozens of expensive medications, the therapists – all were free (well, covered by the plan, to which I had been a contributor throughout my working life. Still, when you need it urgently – it’s there!). I haven’t paid a penny of my own money to date for my health care needs, and I continue to be under expensive psychiatric care. (I’ve felt bad for my American neighbours – truly survivors! – some of whom face financial ruin after accessing health care needs provided by private, for-profit HMO’s It’s a pity, the lack of public health care Stateside. I hope it changes soon.) I read everything I can get my hands on about brain injury.
My life has become a constant education about this treacherous ground I’ve walked upon – brain injury. I got much valuable help from the B.C. Brain Injury Association. They offered group therapy sessions with other survivors. They even made a house call to my home to discuss with my house-mate what we might expect in terms of my injury and changed behaviours. They gave invaluable assistance to me in applying for disability income and enhanced health insurance. [click here for similar services available in the USA.]
My fate was sealed when those surgeons cut open my skull and went snipping through first, the outer dura matter and then, deeper inside through the tangle of neurons to get to that little bomb about to explode in my right temporal lobe.
The docs defused the bomb and saved my life. But they left behind a bloody, ragged trail of collateral damage that remains to this day. So much for : “As Good As New!”
Brain injury can be tricky and mysterious. Scientists may have mapped most of the human genome, but we have yet to really understand the human brain.
Even the shrinks and neurologists are guessing most of the time.
I have the immense good fortune of being the patient of one of Canada’s most eminent specialist (brain injury) psychiatrists. This man is a wonder. “Healer” is the exact word to describe him. I’m a trained observer, and I observe that a good deal of his success with patients is “art” not “science.” He is possessed of profound intuition. He’s a powerful empath: he can read your mind, instantly. And astounding communication skills. Even his body language works as a healing instrument. My course of treatment under his care will be a lifelong daily regimen of psychotropic medications. They calm my agitated nerves, help prevent neural spasms, give me better sleep. Good things like that. But I will have chronic depression the rest of my life. We have tried every anti-depressant available on the market on my poor broken brain without good response. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. The brain seems to adapt to a new “normal” and I live my life rarely noticing my chronic depression. I just don’t experience enjoyment the way that most people do. I’ve learned to not expect “enjoyment” in the normal intensity. My brand of enjoyment is like “Enjoyment Light” I’m not weepy, or sad or suicidal. (But I do have constant suicidal mentation. However, the likelihood of my acting on those thoughts is virtually nil. now.)
Today, I’m a stable patient. No more likelihood of suicide. As long as s.t.r.e.s.s. stays away from my door, that is!
So…I have my intellect intact. But I have lost the psychic energy to actually apply my intellectual powers to any extended project.
Thirty-some years ago I earnestly began to write a novel. It would become The Great Canadian Novel, I just knew it! Well, that project got shelved repeatedly in favour of my career.
But I haven’t worked for 13 years↔I’ve opened up my “novel” box to try to continue work on it. It’s not happening.
No, I don’t think my novel is ever going to happen.
Does that sound defeatist? Well, it is. But I am at peace with that now. There are things I can not do now.
I “survived” my injury, but not whole.
What really worries and alarms me are “survivors” out there who believe they’ve had a 100% recovery from a brain injury, that they’re back to their old selves, and they won’t require any kind of care ever again. They go bouncing back to work, reporting to everyone just how GREAT they feel, NO PROBLEMS. They try to run at 150 % of their former selves, just to prove how GREAT they are!
It’s pure delusion. Wishful thinking. They almost certainly WILL require continuing mental health care. Here is what experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine, based in Baltimore, Maryland say about post-op care:
The patient will see a neurosurgeon or neurologist for periodic examinations and brain scans, usually MRIs. The doctor will check for possible problems caused by… the injury or the treatment the patient received.
Patients often need:
- Outpatient Therapy
- Home Therapy
Further, a Johns Hopkins Aneurysm Expert advises:
“What we fight after surgery for ruptured aneurysms is vasospasm, which one third of patients develop. The treatment, hypertensive hypervolemic therapy with as much as 30 liters of fluid a day, is very complicated and we can deliver it in our neurosciences critical care unit.
Our NCCU is one of the few units in the country entirely devoted to neurosurgical and neurological problems.”
Heaven help those survivors who attempt to go it all alone, without any help!
But of course, it’s healthy human psychology to believe in one’s own integrity. I myself entertained that same delusion for eight years following my injury, fresh out of hospital, believing that I was “Good As New,” (so said the docs!)
Nobody survives a brain aneurysm and comes out of it “As Good As New.” That’s just a lie the docs at the hospital repeat.
I’ll always wonder. Do they know they’re lying?
Any docs out there with cojones enough to reply to my query – Be My Guest. Leave your comments on this page. I dare you.
Other sites by this author:
Save Canada’s Last Wild Mustangs
- Former Brain Aneurysm Patient Signs Record Deal (fox40.com)
- Headache or Brain Aneurysm? (eliving365.com)
- New Option For Difficult-To-Treat Aneurysms Offered By New ‘Pipeline’ Device (medicalnewstoday.com)