Two words you never want to hear together are "brain" and "surgery," but those are the words they handed my friend Kathryn, who, in turn, delivered the news stoically to her stunned friends and family. This past spring, she had been dealing with a month-long headache when doctors determined she had a benign tumor in her brain that needed to come out as soon as possible. Two weeks later she was in surgery while her parents, sister and fianc, and my wife and I, sat nervously in the waiting room, cradling crosswords and sudoku books, eating chips from a vending machine, clinging to whatever little comforts we could find to counter our anxiety.
The surgeon came out and told us the operation was a success, and then walked away. We stood smiling at each other nervously, a huge weight lifted. It all seemed so simple from this point on: She'd be whacked out on pain killers for a few days, then she'd go home and rest for a month and watch a lot of DVDs. Her hair would grow back, she and her fianc would get on with the wedding plans. We all believed it, but it just wasn't true. Kathryn's ordeal was only beginning.
She spent the first few days after the surgery in the Intensive Care Unit attached to a morphine IV, so no one expected her to see her leaping around like a mountain goat. She slipped in and out of consciousness, and that seemed like a good thing. When we asked how she felt, she said simply: "Head hurts." She was wrapped in a turban of gauze. Her face was white. I watched her slowly lift her hand to scratch her face, and pass out with her hand still raised. On a board in the room one of the nurses had written two goals--her entire world reduced to these four words: "Less pain. Increase activity."
By the fourth day, she had been moved to a regular hospital room, and was able to stay awake longer, speaking a little more. But "hurts" was still her answer when we asked what she was going through. We didn't want to grill her on the subject, but we came to realize this much: She was in pain every waking moment. Even when she talked, she lay motionless, her eyes closed, the way people do when battling a severe migraine. Someone had brought her a stuffed lamb, and she clutched it like a child as she drifted off. We smiled at each other tentatively, relieved to know that she had escaped the pain for the moment.
We had expected the pain to subside quickly, and we were desperate to see that. Instead all we could see was suffering, and despite the friends, family and medical staff around her, she was suffering alone. In the hospital lounge we lamely tried to cheer each other by talking about how she smiled once, how she was getting lots of rest, that she'd be better tomorrow. But there was worry in our voices. We walked to a nearby German restaurant and tried to comfort ourselves with heaping piles of food and pints of beer. We joked about the Tom Jones songs on the sound system. None of it helped. We were distressed.
Kathryn's parents, who had come from out of town, had expected to stay a few days, but now they moved into our house, preparing for the long haul. After Kathryn was released from the hospital, they spent their days at her house with her, watching her endure the pain, hour after hour. Sitting around our kitchen table in the evenings, we talked about the daily progress report, which seemed to be about the same as the day before, or worse. We drank a lot; the stress was enormous. We reminded ourselves that whatever anxiety we were going through was nothing by comparison, and we meant it.
It was along climb out. A full month after the surgery, Kathryn began to experience minutes, then whole hours, where the pain was gone. She wanted to get back to her job, but everyone advised against it; she could barely walk to the corner and back. After six weeks, she started working a few hours a day, but continued to battle exhaustion and pain. Now it was more obvious than ever: She was fighting to get to where she wanted to be.
I have to ask myself--as a person who complains about a stubbed toe all day long--if I have that kind of courage. I'd like to think that I could muster enough inner strength to keep fighting, but I honestly don't know if I could. I was humbled to watch her go through this--and all without a single word of self-pity or complaint. I just don't think I'm wired that way. I didn't think that anybody was.
She pushed through it, and she's pushing still. Last week she and her fiance bought a house. This week, they got married.
About the Author
Ken DuBois is a marketing guru by day and a freelance writer by night. He has written film reviews for Reel.com, and worked for a time as a theater critic. He is passionate about working out: When he's not in the pool, he's hiking, biking, walking and, weather permitting, working on his backhand.