Never having had any type of surgery at all, preparing for my biopsy in August 2012 was stressful. I understood the mechanics of what would be done, but it was still anxiety provoking. And somehow a little exciting too. People tell you that if you can learn as much as possible about what procedures will be done, what will happen on the day of the surgery, what will follow, etc., that it will help reduce anxiety. What follows is the serendipitous and sort of miraculous story of how I learned all of that, in detail, before my surgery.
Recently, my family marked the one year anniversary of my dad’s passing. He was both young and old when he died. He was young, too young, in years, at the age of 65. He was much older, too old, in his cognitive state. He was diagnosed six years before he died with a particularly aggressive form of dementia called Fronto-Temporal Dementia (FTD). This disease is one of the “Alzheimer’s-related” dementias we hear more and more about in this time of aging populations. About three years after his diagnosis, my mom took early retirement to care for him, and they relocated cities, moving into a townhouse near me. A year before he died, we made the difficult decision to move him to a care home.
By the summer of 2012, my dad had lost most of his vocabulary, and had been exhibiting for some time many of the more severe symptoms of his disorder. When I was told I had a brain tumour and had to undergo a biopsy, I wondered what he would have told me if he could, because he’d gone through treatment for throat cancer almost 30 years previous. My amazing mom, who I hope I get all my strength from, was worried both about me and my health challenges and about him. He’d been having falls at night in his room, had a fever, and didn’t seem to want to get out of bed, so we decided to transfer him to hospital to get a sense of what was going on.
Here we encountered the first coincidence; although my dad and I did not share neurosurgeons, the two residents charged with our primary care were the same. I had just seen them a week or so before, when they came into my dad’s room and said “Hey, Hi!”. It’s amazing what a familiar face can do; we felt better immediately. Doctors assessed him and conducted some tests and advised us that he had fluid built up inside his skull, perhaps from an infection, but that it wasn’t draining properly. They suggested doing a procedure to relieve the pressure, drilling a burr hole and using a drain.
I didn’t immediately make the connection, but when I saw him in recovery, I realized he’d essentially just undergone the same procedure that I would be having done a week later. He recovered initially in an observation room with four beds in it, and my mom and I both liked the staff assigned there very much. I observed the little shaved patch on his head and the small incision and drain tube, and the procedures the staff followed to monitor him. Then he was moved to a regular room on the neuro ward for recovery, where we met the social worker assigned to the ward. We discussed with her that I would be a patient on the ward in a week. She was delighted to meet us, and gave me her contact info, and chatted with us about our experience and how she could help. She commented that it was so nice to meet someone in advance and how they should really arrange that more often, it was such a treat. I thought “yeah, good idea, you’d think that’s an easy one!”
A week later, I woke up to familiar faces in the same recovery room my dad had been in (one of five on that ward), just across from the bed he’d been assigned. I felt my stitches, in the same spot and side as my dad’s. I reflected on how my mom, my husband and I now knew where everything was on the neuro ward, when the shift changes were, where the best parking was, and which cafeteria had the best treats. As it turned out, my dad’s procedure wasn’t all that helpful for him; the fluid buildup kept returning and we chose not to put him through repeated procedures to drain it. He would ultimately pass away peacefully with his family by his side, comfortable in his bed at his care home eight months later.
That procedure may not have helped him that much, but he sure helped me. I like to think that he was right there, looking out for me, in the ways that he could, showing me that it wasn’t so scary after all. Thanks, dad. As he would say, in a tone and with expression that he could make mean anything, “Man oh Man!”.