American English has so many colloquialisms; expressions that have been grandfathered into our conversation. As busy as a one-armed paperhanger. He looks like he was rode hard and put away wet. It beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. I could go on, but why?
Whenever any of us wants to compare the task at hand to something so amazingly complicated that mere mortals should not even think about attempting it, we say, “Well, it’s not like it’s rocket science.” Or, “it’s not like it’s brain surgery.”
Then one day you find yourself sitting in a neurosurgeon’s office and hear him say, “We’ll have to do brain surgery on you.”
But he’s not done.
“I’ll cut a hole in the back of your skull and have to go underneath the occipital lobe and up in between it and the temporal and parietal lobes to get to the problem, so technically,” he shrugs, “it qualifies as deep brain surgery.”
Not just brain surgery, but DEEP brain surgery.
He’s still not done.
“Now I have to talk to you about possible unfortunate outcomes.”
Word to the wise. When a medical professional uses a term like “unfortunate outcome, ” it is medical-speak for another colloquialism: “You could be toast.”
“We could be looking at permanent facial droop, infection, brain bleed, stroke, death. Sign here.”
Somehow, I needed time to think about someone poking around in my brain. So I researched the procedure. I looked up this neurosurgeon’s stats, including any pending malpractice suits. I even insisted on talking to another patient who had had a similar procedure. After all, it’s not like it was my kidneys, where I had a spare. This was my one and only brain and I wanted it to be as unimpaired as possible, please.
But tipping the scales in the favor of surgery was 10 years of chronic pain. The thing about chronic pain is that it makes everything in your life way more difficult: sleeping, brushing your teeth, fixing a meal, going to a meeting, completing a project, meeting a deadline, everything. What should be just another bullet point on your to-do list becomes a hurdle that you have to haul yourself across, and this obstacle course had already been a decade long, with no end in sight.
In the book The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Theron, (herself a member of the chronic pain club) wrote, “To experience pain is to have certainty. To hear of pain is to have doubt.” It’s true. Even though trigeminal neuralgia is written up in medical journals as one of the most excruciating ailments known to science, there were those who did not believe that I really hurt that much. I actually had someone tell me that I was just exquisitely sensitive to pain.
Okay. Let’s walk that path for just a minute. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I feel pain more easily and intensely than others. It’s not like there is some scientific calibration system for degree of pain. You are always asked to rate your pain on a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being the worst pain ever. Your 9 could be someone else’s 4, and your 3 could be someone else’s 10.
I suppose it’s a possibility that I am more sensitive to pain. But I’ve gone through natural childbirth three times, averaging nine hours each. I’m allergic to Novocain, and have had teeth filled cold turkey. I really don’t think that I am a pain wuss.
Pain is the body’s warning system. Get your hand away from that hot stove. If you do not respond to that warning, over time the body recruits more and more neurons to deliver the pain message even more effectively. At the same time, when you are on powerful painkillers, over the long haul they become less and less effective. More pain signals, less pain relief.
It came down to scary brain surgery, with a chance of relief v. same old, same very old.
Eventually, I decided to go for it. After 10 years, it was time to roll the dice.
As part of the prep at the hospital, they began sticking EKG sensors all over my torso.
Whoa. Permanent facial droop, infection, brain bleed, stroke, death. There was no mention of heart attack. When I asked, “Do you have many cardiac arrests during this procedure?” the nurse laughed and kept sticking the dang things on me. Not exactly helpful.
The trip on the gurney from surgical prep to the OR was the longest ride of my life. I swear we ended up in a different zip code. The transport tech was chattering away as he pushed the gurney, while I was wondering if these were some of the last sights and sounds I would ever hear. The entire time I was looking up at miles acoustical tiles, I did deep breaths, deep breaths, telling myself that if this was it, at least it had been a good ride. Although I had the power to sit up and say, “Stop! I changed my mind!,” I also knew that not having the surgery was an unacceptable option.
The OR was amazingly cold. Then the anesthesiologist was telling me to expect a metallic taste in my mouth, then moments of rising panic, awful taste, and then…nothing.
For the neurosurgeon to cut a hole in the back of my skull, he needed access – after I was asleep, they flipped me on to my front so I was face down for the surgery. This will become important later.
On TV and in the movies, when people are coming out of anesthesia, they are bright and chipper and pain-free and speak in full sentences immediately.
As I was floating to the surface from a deep, dark, lovely place, I remember two distinct thoughts:
- I did not want to wake up, thank you. Asleep meant I did not hurt. Asleep meant I was happy. Awake would mean pain, so why would I want to do that?
- I was aware of ambient noise. And then I realized: I couldn’t see.
Wait a minute. Permanent facial droop, infection, brain bleed, stroke, death. He never said anything about blind!
Eventually I figured out I could perceive light but I could not open my eyes. Later, I realized they had encircled my head in gauze bandages while I was still face down and so they covered my eyes. Oh, bandages. Insert finger, lift the bandages, see. Relief.
The neurosurgeon had told me that I would have “a pretty good headache” when I woke up. I have never actually been smashed in the back of the head with a sledgehammer, but I think I know what it feels like.
When you are on really good drugs- and I wanted all the really good drugs, all of the time – your memory becomes unreliable, which is unnerving. You recall things out of sequence, or you remember them months later, or sometimes you don’t remember things at all. There are big chunks of those five days in the hospital that I can’t remember.
What I do remember is the pain and how protective my daughter became. I remember hearing her say something to the effect of, “My mother needs more pain meds right now. Now. Do not make me go all Shirley MacLaine all over you!”
I did not come out of surgery with permanent facial droop, infection, brain bleed, stroke, or death, and I am very grateful for a happy outcome. I went for it, I leaned in, I rolled the dice, I did the “go big or go home.” Is the pain totally gone? No. I still have chronic pain. But before surgery, I never had a pain-free day, and now I do, sometimes several of them in a row. If I had it to do over again, would I do the same thing? Absolutely.
As a brain surgery veteran, my advice to you is: if you ever find yourself in a neurosurgeon’s office and hear the words, “We’ll have to do brain surgery on you,” just smile, shrug, and say, “Well, it’s not like it’s rocket science.”
Sara Norris is one of the three principals of When You Leave The Room, LLC, a business presentation skills coaching firm. Prior to founding the firm, she spent more than 30 years in the field of advertising, beginning as an award-winning copywriter and ending as Executive Vice President and Director of Client Services for a wholly owned subsidiary of J. Walter Thompson. Along the way she collected a wealth of stories, most of them juicy.