My neurosurgeon is a young, confident gunslinger–what you’d have to be to be a brain surgeon. His confidence made me confident. I could do this no problem. My brother, the pediatric cardiologist, told me to wait for the surgical option until the risks were worth the cure. My surgeon left me thinking this was going to be the case. “For brain surgeries,” he said, “this one carries the least risk.” At least that’s what I heard him say. “It’s my favorite procedure. Low risk, high reward.” I’m in.
Though the more I described the procedure(s) to others, the more I began to think this was more of an ordeal than I was imagining. The process involves two steps. The first, a few holes in the top of the head so that they can run wires into the thalamus area of the brain. Deep brain. An overnight stay in the hospital. Back a week later for them to run the wires into my chest and hook them to the batteries.
I was, typical for me, a little less curious than normal people would’ve been. And a little naïve, having never spent a night in the hospital before. The doctor had done a thousand of these. What’s to be curious about?
My first surgery began with the mounting of a Hanibal Lector style halo on my head. This was done in pre-op, with me fully awake. They shot my forehead and the back of my head with a ton of lydocane, given the fact that this particular local has little effect on me. The screwing of the pins into my skull was not without pain, and I don’t mind saying not without a few silent, lip-biting tears. But only a few. They then took me for a CT in my new fashion accessory, which they combined with an MRI done previously in the week to make a detailed map of my brain.
I’m glad they knew where they were drilling. I was ready for surgery.
They put me in a “twilight sleep” for the first part of my surgery, the part when they opened my head and drilled small holes on either side of my skull. They woke me up, however, for about 30-40 minutes in the middle of the surgery.
I awoke to the sound of modulating static. Turns out, these were the sounds my brain makes and they knew how deep into the brain to go by how the various parts of the brain sound. I should point out that I was not without pain. While the brain has no pain receptors, the scalp does, very good ones apparently.
Once they had run the wire into the right side of my brain, a technician came and sat next to me. He had a device in his hands that tested the placement of the wire in my brain. There are three possible point of contact at the end of the wire to run a little voltage into my brain. All three of them are programmable. So, the technician would run a little current through the wire and the surgeon would make adjustments by a millimeter this way or that until they felt they had the wire placed for optimum result.
They knew to move it based on my reactions to the current running into my brain. I would feel tingling or seizing, first in my leg, then in my face, sometimes both. Finally, after about 10 minutes of these adjustments, I felt tingling in my left hand, the place where my tremor does its worst. This made the whole room happy. They asked me to hold up out my hands. There was a tremor in my right hand, but my left had was as solid as a rock. I couldn’t believe it. I think I might have said something similar to holy crap (they were running current through my brain! Who knows what a man might say in that situation). This amused the room as they knew that I teach theology at Rochester College. They had me draw a spiral and sign my name. Amazing difference. I was also overwhelmed by how happy everyone in the room was. There were lots of smiling eyes above surgical masks.
They repeated the process on the other side of my brain, which took a lot less time given that they had found the sweet spot for the other side. I couldn’t wait for them to put me to sleep again. But I have to say, I was touched by how everyone in the room was focused on my well-being.
I have to admit I was surprised when I saw the scars on the top of my head. Again, I was not really curious about the details, so not sure what the actual incisions would be. I was shocked to find two, large “L” shaped scars on either side of my head, stapled together. Stapled. They. Stapled. My. Head. (The racing stripe down the middle is a line drawn with ink, I suppose for measuring purposes. I was surprised how little they clean you up after things are over. Ink, blood, etc)
But I think the impressive scars were fitting given the experience that led to them. My one night in the hospital turned into two. I was nauseated the entire next day. My roommate had a tough night and a tougher day when his wife and sister-in-law showed up. I felt like I was in the middle of a Seinfeld episode featuring the Castanzas.
My first overnight stay in the hospital made me aware of how great a good nurse can be. And even more impressed with the difficult work CNA’s do. The CNA who helped my roomie through the night was subjected to the worst kind of grossness several times. He never lost his patience. He was always kind. I’m not sure which one of them was Jesus or an angel, the old man or the CNA, but I know the CNA was a rare kind of servant.
When I made it to my apartment the second day after my surgery, I was amazed at what I had been through to that point. And thankful that I had been in good hands the entire time. Half way done. Or so I thought.