Two and a half years ago, I took this photo while sitting on Maya Beach in the Phi Phi Islands on my honeymoon in Thailand. At that point, I was living a pretty damn perfect life. I was married to the love of my life. I had amazing family and friends. I had a challenging, professional career working in New York City. I led an active, healthy lifestyle. Yet, I knew how to throw down a few cocktails and let loose. I am Irish. I know how to have a good time…
Basically, I was the “girl who had it all.”
Then, on Sunday, April 6, 2014, everything changed in the matter of a heartbeat.
While sitting in my nail salon that Sunday, reading what was likely some trashy gossip magazine and being completely mindless, I began to feel a strange sensation in my left leg. I had been experiencing this sensation for a few months, but I had naively chalked it up to some kind of ambitious yoga stretch that I obviously hadn’t yet mastered. First mistake – do not ignore your body when it is clearly telling you something is wrong!
In those prior months, I had simply expected the sensation to just go away. I brushed it all off. I mean, I didn’t have time to worry about something that seemed so minor. I couldn’t work a doctor’s appointment into my demanding schedule! Who has the time? However, I soon began to have frequent episodes where my entire left foot and leg would go completely numb. I would have to stop walking, or running, or doing whatever it was I was doing, until the feeling subsided. I worked in New York City. I was constantly in a rush. This sensation was just getting in the way. It was an annoyance that I finally admitted needed to be checked-out further, just so I wouldn’t have to stop on the subway steps with hordes of people behind me bothered that I was holding them up. And yes, that is what finally brought me to see my doctor… not a true concern for my health, but my frustration in this inconvenience to my daily routine.
So, I eventually sucked it up. On Thursday, April 3rd, I saw my primary care physician. While relaying my symptoms, my doctor seemed clearly concerned. Due to a family history of multiple sclerosis, she ordered an MRI of my brain, which would likely be scheduled for the following week. I sat there in tears. How could some numbness in my leg be a possible sign of MS? I had seen what MS had done to my family members. I suddenly began to imagine my future and it scared the hell out of me. Little did I know what would come just days later.
Anyway, there I was that Sunday, having a “me day” at the nail salon, attempting to forget about that doctor’s appointment and the nagging feeling that Yes, something was definitely wrong. Ironically, as I sat with my nail girl, I began telling her about that appointment and what my doctor feared. At that moment, the numbness in my foot came on and began traveling up my leg, into my left side and down my left hand. I asked her to give me just a minute, convinced the episode would pass. Suddenly, I began to have trouble breathing. In sheer panic, I told her to call 911. For the next 30 seconds, I lost all control of my extremities. I was violently shaking, unable to speak. Then, I lost consciousness.
I later learned that I had suffered a grand mal seizure. When I eventually returned to my nail salon, the girls explained that the seizure had been so violent, my contact lens had actually popped out of my eye. By some miracle, one of the salon employees had experience with seizures, and was able to care for me until the EMTs arrived.
The next thing I remember was being wheeled into the ER. My immediate thought was, “I am dying. This is what dying is like.” I recall the EMTs asking me my name. I didn’t know it. They asked me what was happening, how I was feeling. All I could muster was, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I have no idea how I got into a hospital gown or into a hospital bed, but when I finally realized where I was, I screamed out, “Please call my husband. Where is my husband?” Thankfully, the nail salon had been able to contact my friend, who was then able to call my husband. Life lesson – never underestimate the value of a great nail salon!
When my husband arrived in sheer panic, it was like something out of a movie. He rushed into the hospital room, throwing back the curtain. I had never seen him look so scared. He is the strong, silent type. This had clearly rocked him to his core. I immediately became hysterical. In between gushes of tears and attempts at catching my breath, all I could say was, “I don’t know what is happening!”
In a way, as strange as it may seem, I feel blessed for how the seizure happened. I wasn’t driving. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t, god forbid, on the subway where people likely would’ve just assumed I was some crackhead, who had a bad dose. I was somewhere safe, where everyone knew me. I also wasn’t the one, who had to make the devastating calls to my family and friends to tell them what had happened. Where would I have found the words? I also cannot overemphasize the glory of anti-anxiety medication! The ER doctors were kind enough to administer those soon after I was fully coherent, so I was at least highly medicated when I learned what had actually happened.
A calm, soft-spoken neurologist eventually came into my hospital room, which was now filled with family and friends. I recall him putting his head down, eyes to the ground, telling me, “Your scans show there is some kind of lesion on your brain. Whatever it is, it will have to be removed, and it will have to be removed sooner rather than later.” Frankly, I hadn’t even realized I had undergone any scan. News to me! I also couldn’t fathom that just days earlier I had believed I was in perfect health. Now, I had something in my brain that had caused my entire body to entirely shut down, nearly killing me. What was going on?
The next few days in the hospital continue to be a blur. Again, meds are amazing. I don’t know how I would have even begun to process everything without being highly medicated. It is amazing what our minds do remember though.
One of the few, crystal clear memories I had was getting our family lawyer to draw up legal documents. One such document was a Living Will to ensure that my husband and family would not have to make the dire decision to keep me alive under extenuating circumstances, like ya know, becoming a vegetable only being kept alive by machines. As an attorney myself, it didn’t even occur to me what the significance of those documents meant to my family. For me, it was just business. For them, it was devastating having to think about such possibilities. I even had my two dear friends, who are also attorneys, come to sign and witness the documents in the hospital.
Another significant, overwhelming moment during those next few days was trying to arrange brain surgery – definitely not something I had ever in my wildest dreams thought I would have to do. You know that saying, “It’s not brain surgery.” Well, it was, and now I was faced with the biggest decision of my life. Who was I going to trust with my life, to cut open my skull and remove something in my brain?
Another frightening lesson I have learned through all of this is that the doctors you choose really do mean life or death. While the ER doctors were extremely competent, I would not have trusted that hospital to perform brain surgery.
Through various connections, I was beyond fortunate enough to get an appointment with one of the top neurosurgeons in the country. He is my hero for so many reasons, but one of my favorite things about him is how he broached the topic of surgery. I distinctly remember him walking into the room during our first consult. He was not wearing a lab coat, but in “business casual” as you’d say. I got the sense immediately that he was not going to be one of those pretentious, “holier than thou” physicians, although given his credentials, he would have all the right to be. He introduced himself casually and sat down on the chair next to the exam table. With his legs crossed, sitting back, he looked at me and said, “So, you’re going to need a little bit of brain surgery.” All I could do was laugh. At one of the worst times in my life, there I was… laughing.
And so, in just a few short days, my life was turned upside down, inside out. My life would certainly never be the same, but thankfully I’ve got a lot more life to live and a lot more to write about.