Collective Healing

This was my fourth year at Camp Mak-A-Dream with The Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation, and my second as a volunteer. After attending as a camper for two years and finding my community, I knew that coming back and volunteering during that same session, the teenage brain tumor week known as the Heads Up Conference, was what I needed to do in order to help other, younger survivors do the same. Every year when I go back, I see a little bit of myself in younger campers. In the first-time campers, I usually see a hesitancy to talk about how their diagnosis has affected them on a deeper level. Whether they realize it yet or not, telling the same diagnosis and treatment story over and over again is so much easier than actually talking about how the diagnosis has affected them as a person. It’s common for people to ask what happened in terms of how/when you were diagnosed, but not what happened after that. Camp is the place where you can start to explore the “after that” part.

I arrived last Friday in the evening on a flight with two campers, while the rest of the campers and volunteers arrived earlier that afternoon. I opened the door to the upper lodge where we eat all of our meals, and was blasted with hugs for a full ten minutes. It was like being wrapped up in blankets of love over, and over, and over again. Pure bliss. I had met many of the campers during my first year at camp four years ago, and it was so incredible to see them and hear about their accomplishments since then. One wrote a cookbook, another volunteers at recreation therapy center every week, two have full rides for their first year of college, and another was voted prom queen this past year!

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This year I volunteered as part of program staff and helped out wherever needed. If the sessions were our usual camp activities like the high ropes course, zip line, art barn, etc. then I helped make sure than they ran smoothly. If we had expert members come in from the community to run activities such as a poetry workshop or meditation session, I got to sit in on them and observe. Those moments were special because I had a chance to truly take a step back and analyze what campers were communicating with their behavior and language. Every word that comes out of our mouths is an indicator of our state of mind and self-perception, and confidence is always a big focus and something that we want to boost for everyone at camp. During the poetry workshop, some campers chose to write about their medical experiences, and others did not. I really appreciated those who did, and thought that those poems were extremely powerful. To build off of that workshop, another program volunteer had the fantastic idea to create the opportunity for a music therapy workshop where campers could set the poems that they wrote to music. We brought out the drums, shakers, and pulled up an online music library to give campers a variety of options to work with. Providing creative outlets like this is so important, because de-stressors can be so easily forgotten about in the midst of a storm.

Friendship bracelets are a big part of camp. Whenever we’re riding a bus for a camp fieldtrip, or just sitting around waiting for an activity to start, you can guarantee that there’s string and bracelet making going on nearby. One afternoon I spotted of the bubbliest campers just sitting there looking a bit defeated, when there was plenty of string on the table right in front of her. I asked her why she wasn’t making a bracelet, and she replied that she had never made one before because she only had one “good hand.” A lot of our campers have some sort of right or left sided weakness, but unlike me, theirs doesn’t just go away after a seizure ends because theirs is permanent or semi-permanent from their surgeries. So, we made a bracelet together. She held the main string, and I weaved the second one around hers. And afterwards, she had officially made her first camp bracelet. We worked together again as a team when we volunteered at a food bank and labeled packaging bags and had to remove stickers from a sheet of paper as well. I get to resume all of the activities that I usually do at most up to three days after a seizure, but at camp, I’m reminded that some survivors have to adapt to their new normal full time, and don’t have the privilege that I do to regain bilateral function.

I noticed more of a focus on mental health this year than ever before, and I was glad to see it. Brain tumor patients often exhibit depression and anxiety, and mental health is so stigmatized that it only exacerbates the problem. Older campers really stepped up in the group discussions and made sure that younger campers knew that what they were feeling, whether they wanted to talk about it or not, was normal, and that they were there for them. One camper even put his phone number in each and every camper’s warm fuzzy bag (a name-labeled bag where you put nice notes for someone that leave them feeling “warm and fuzzy” after reading them) to call if they ever need to talk.

From caring about fashion to now valuing family, having to give up sports for medical scans, going from caring about popularity to caring about the well being of others, and thinking about a career as a fashion designer to switching over to one in the medical field because of their therapist and treatments, campers really identified a shift in their priorities post-diagnosis this week. Their self-awareness and sense of self at a young age is something stronger than their peers. I am proud to have reunited with and have had the opportunity to interact with so many new, incredible individuals. This week they were told that they are worthy, that they are unique, and that they are good enough regardless of their disabilities. And they are.

Camp is where my before and after surgery worlds collide. It was at camp three years ago that I had my conference call with Dr. B in San Francisco and with my parents in Michigan while I was in Montana to plan my surgery. That’s just how the timing worked out. Whenever I visit, talk about, or even think about camp, I find it hard to believe that that call was made there. How could I possibly have scheduled my brain surgery, something so stressful, so absolutely terrifying, at a place so peaceful and so calming to me? But it happened. And now, three years later, it seems like a far off dream and hardly even a reality. I had a meeting in the same room that I made the call in at camp this week. It didn’t feel that strange at the time, but thinking back on it now, I wish that I had asked for it to be moved to another room so as to avoid bringing up those old memories.

Camp is a space for collective healing because of our collective trauma. Visual and hearing impairments, physical weakness, processing delays, and difficulties with impulse control are primary side effects from our brain tumors. And because of those, we are automatically othered. Bullying, depression, anxiety, and social isolation are secondary side effects that may have an even stronger impact than the initial disability. At camp, the narrative changes. For one week, we’re all on the same page.

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I’ve been trying to forget

I’ve been trying to forget what magazine subscriptions belong to which waiting room offices. I’ve been trying to forget the names of receptionists, and the faces of which technicians blow veins.

I’ve been trying to live a normal college student life.

Well, the music is too loud. The hot yoga classes are too early in the day. And, the excitement over the new (mediocre) Asian cuisine restaurant is overrated.

I filed a maintenance request to fix my bathroom door that had somehow come off its hinges last week. As the custodian’s drill bit whirred and the screws brought the door back to the wall, I remembered. Dr. P’s face came back in focus and he asked me to identify the objects and letters appearing on the screen, pressing the spacebar to set off the thick, mechanical swooshing sound that moved from one picture to the next. I hadn’t seen his face in two or three weeks, and that had been a victory.

We briefly talked about axons, dendrites, synapses, and other basic neuroscience in a class this week. We brushed right on through the PowerPoint slide, not evening mentioning the duties of each lobe and delicate area of the brain. I wanted to pipe up and explain their functions, but I didn’t. The word plasticity was mentioned, and I remembered the sound of Dr. B’s voice. I remember his reassuring response to my questions, reminding me that the brain rewires and relearns.

I’ve been trying to forget, but all I can do is remember.

I have been trying to distance myself from my medical memories and subconscious patterns of reminders over the past month, but life keeps calling myself back to remember. These memories are haunting me, and they mean something. Maybe I’m not ready to forget, or, maybe it’s that I’m not supposed to?

Two Years Later

Two years ago today I had awake brain surgery. All 50 (technically 49) stitches, a brain drain, oxygen tube, multiple arm and toe IVs later, I emerged from the OR. My eyebrows looked great, but the rest of me was definitely not ready for senior photos. I look at the photo below and see power. I see my body’s resilience. Perhaps most importantly, I see me smiling in my sleep and think to myself, “just another day in the life,” because it’s true.

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I’ll spend most of the day wondering how I got here. How I got to a point where professors are surprised that I’m the one who emailed them about brain surgery and epilepsy when I look so “normal.” I originally planned on posting a recap of what I remember from the morning of, during, and night following surgery, but I deleted it. I’m sure that it would have made for a great reading, but it just didn’t feel right. Maybe next year. People have asked why today is so important to me. They can understand how one year later was significant, but are confused as to why I find two years later to be just as meaningful. The answer is simple: Awake brain surgery isn’t just something that you undergo and then forget about. It’s not that you don’t want to, but rather, that you can’t. I take the tranquilizes that are anti-seizure medications 3x a day, and they are a reminder. I am cognizant about the amount of noise I can be around before it completely drains my energy, and they are a reminder. I have to be aware of exits in the room so that I can leave as soon as a migraine is coming on, or if I wish to be elsewhere when a seizure makes its presence known in full force. I have to be on duty at all times.

When my Dad helped move me back into college this year he asked me if I remembered what Dr. B had told him when I was resting in the ICU. I didn’t. He told my Dad that “You just gave her a shot at life.” And here I am. I’m a college student who wakes up every day on my own, goes to class, makes the Dean’s List, makes friends, and dates like any other college student out there. I am normal in many ways thanks to Dr. B.

I had access to one of the world’s most talented neurosurgeons. I didn’t have to “fight” as hard as some might think. I got lucky, and now, I manage my body and brain the best that I can. I occupy a body that could have, would have, should have etc. been many different things than it is today. The combative language that people use when describing chronic illness make it seem like you are either aggressively using all of your energy to stay alive, or that you have given up. I didn’t have energy to expend either way. I woke up every day and took the medication that I was prescribed, and it worked out. I woke up in the middle of the night when the steroids called out to me. I drank the chocolate milk that they commanded me to crave. I went for short walks and held onto my Dad for balance. I watched movies, and I napped in the two months immediately following my brain surgery. I existed for the time being, and that was enough. That was enough to save my body so that I could rebuild my mindset and fully acknowledge a shift in perspective. Now, if I spend too much time thinking about the surgery I’m bound to go insane. How could it be that I’m this functional after all that happened? I have friends who have spent extra time inside hospital walls after trying to answer that very question. But, if I don’t acknowledge the surgery, then I’m selling myself short of my incredibly miraculous history. It’s a fine line to walk.

And just like that, it hits me. Out of nowhere a memory takes over while biking to class. I woke up in the ICU. My throat was dry, and my voice was hoarse. I assume that I had a tube down there at some point in time. I stayed awake in awe for much of my first night in the ICU. I remember a TV being on but me not watching it. The light from the screen helped make the first video that I made, though. And then I’m back. I’ve reached my destination and I know where I am. How I got there is another story. There are moments like that, and when my speech slurs, that I wonder and worry, am I just tired, or is the tumor back? Regardless, here I am. I’ve reached year 2. If I got to do it all over again, I want to say that I wish I wasn’t awake for the surgery. But, I’m not sure if that’s true. Those memories ground me, and I am undecided. Our own experiences are our best teachers, and I’m still learning how to process some of them. I’m headed in for my latest scan this afternoon. It makes sense to double check two years stable by making sure that the tumor (or rather lack thereof!) is still stable, right? This will be two years of an every-four-months scan protocol, and I am hoping to have the scans bumped back to every six months after today. As always, I’ll send the disc out to UCSF for Dr. B’s review.

I recorded videos every day for the first week, then every month, and stopped somewhere around 6 months after surgery. I recently went back to watch them, and didn’t remember taking any videos but the first one. If they’re fascinating to me, they might be to you too. Take a look:

Day 1:

Day 2: 

A Piece of Paper

I came across a folded up piece of paper today while cleaning out a drawer in my room. This wasn’t just any piece of paper..it was the piece of paper. The piece of paper that kickstarted my hunt for a neurosurgeon. The piece of paper divided into four equal quadrants responsible for different categories of questions for doctors.

I wrote on this piece of paper during my first consult with a neurosurgeon sometime in the late spring or early summer of 2012 when I was first told that my brain tumor had grown. I’m almost coming up on two years since that day. It feels like a lifetime ago.

Excerpts from the piece of paper read:

  • “Stable by no means”
  • “Watch & wait -> chemo & radiation down the road”
  • “Average 10-12 years from diagnosis to grade 3”
  • “Take the risks today for tomorrow’s benefits”
  • “Risks will never be = to or less than they are today”
  • “Time is on our side”

I feel the need to keep and preserve this piece of paper because one day it will be ancient relic..a thing of the past. I’ve gotten rid of all other hospital based items including scrubs, socks, and t-shirts besides a couple of bracelets from monumental surgeries.