What I recall of the morning I went for brain surgery at Evanston Hospital were a lot of intense nurses rolling me around very quickly, air conditioning that wouldn’t stop and an operating room full of surgeons, helpers, students, nurses, whatever, preparing to drill into my head and solve my problem. Donald Trump was president, and I was asked about that off and on. All dressed in their coveralls, with fluffy hats covering their hair and masks over their faces. Intense. I counted ceiling tiles on the way and thought about all those hospital procedurals I have watched over the years. I marveled at the technology. Brain surgery is all about technology, I suspect. The whole thing made me want to pee, but that would have to wait. These were about 20 emotional minutes to ponder the question: “Is my life going to change because of this surgery?”
I am delighted to report that it already has a bit, which has brought me to tears about four times since the event, and that the process isn’t done yet. Tears and emotions are not unsual in the wake of brain surgery, I am told. It is the first time I have been able to stand up without dizziness in about a dozen years, and that brings a feeling of great relief. I can walk without falling over. I’m still fragile, but In a month or so, I can get back to the YMCA for working out. If you are reading this, I have reached age 70 (Aug. 23), where I never expected to get in the first place. I can shop at Whole Foods without feeling as though I am going to crash into the canned veggies. I no longer walk like an old man who has been over-served! These changes are golden to me because they are signs my problem, normal pressure hydrocephalus, will step aside so I can get on with my life.
My physical therapists will no longer have to keep pointing at my right foot and telling me it’s dragging on the walking machine. I will be able to step up on the rubber pad without kicking it with my toe. I will no longer need a cane to walk (although I will miss the classy one I was using, which my son Brian made for his grandmother when she was 94 and wanted to keep walking.) I will no longer be stumbling midway through a two block walk. I will be able to keep up with my wife, at least in walking.
The long story short on how this happened, my doctor said there was nothing he could do after years of struggling with dizziness. We were out of tests. So he sent me to see Dr. Timothy Hain, the “dizziness” doctor, downtown. It’s a huge place. Hain’s office is just up the street from Northwestern University Hospital. He and his staff put me through an array of dizziness tests that seemed like they came right from an amusement park. Then he sent me for an MRI. Then he told me what he found. “I suspect its normal pressure hydrocephalus and a brain shunt will help fix it.” Northwestern is a great hospital, but it takes a long time to get anything done, and I had already spent enough time with this ailment. Dr. Hain noted that it would not take a great set of brain surgery hands just to implant a shunt. It’s not a delicate process. So I called Evanston Hospital and got to see the surgeon who would implant my shunt right away. It didn’t take long to make the arrangements. I was hospital bound before I knew it.
The neurosurgeon Dr. Shakeel Choudry and his team shaved my head behind my right ear and made a couple of cuts before drilling the hole in my head. A sophisticated valve would be stuck in that space behind my ear. It had one tube leading to a shunt about the size of a tightly wrapped joint that would reside in my brain’s right ventricle, ever looking for pressure to relieve by sending excess fluids down to my gut to be drained though another tiny tube. When I lay down in bed at night, it collects excess fluids that are drained as soon as I stand up in the morning as I understand it. ” Gradually, I will get better and better. God bless you Dr. Hakim. My friend at the Y, Dori Conn, told me her father was one of Dr. Hakim’s earliest patients. They travelled all over the country doing a show and tell on adult hydrocephalus and how it could be addressed. “It changed my father’s life,” she told me.
Now it can change mine, too.
A digression from the science for a minute. Three of my four sisters are nurses and for many years, I resented the way they questioned every bump on my skin, my wheezing at night, the whole aging thing. I am not very good at the “taking care of your health” business, and they know this from experience. I fell on vacation once and broke my thumb and never got it set and to this day have a bump where the bone was broken. My GP said not to pursue it now because someone someplace would want to break it again and set it, and so on. So I didn’t. But the point is that my sisters spent their lives noticing things on people who were hospitalized. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how important that is. Now I know how important it is. I had the greatest collection of non-family nurses I have ever met at Evanston Hospital in intensive care. True, they poked me and prodded me with needles and infusions and who knows what else, but they were completely professional and kind about every bit of it. On the day I was released, two of them showed up at 4:30 a.m. to give me a sponge bath. I have never had a sponge bath in my life. The prospect was kind of scary for me. What if something happened? You know exactly what I mean. What if THAT happened. Although they were two lovely young women, that did not happen. You know what I mean. So my thought is, well, I’m 70, what’s going to happen? And yet, we live to dream, you know? But they were so gentle and kind in cleaning a couple of days of hospital stuff off of me I don’t think I will ever forget it. Very professional nurses. My last few hours was spent in the care of a nurse who had been doing her job for 40 years. Just as professional as the younger women. I love that. It’s like a piece of the job description. Finally, people who take their work to heart. Bless them. Of course I was not allowed to stand up, which made peeing a problem. They gave me a plastic bottle to pee into, but doing that when you are flat on your back and still buzzed from operating dope is not so easy, and you don’t want to be the one who pees all over the special blanket they put under you for just such an event. “Don’t pee on the blanket! That’s just for accidents,” I had fears. “Do you remember the day that old Mr. Madigan peed all over the blanket?” Then riotous laughter. “Such a geezer!”
Of course that didn’t happen. My morning hours passed without incident. Then my wife showed up to take me home. A word about my wife, who is a private person and who hates it when I do this kind of thing. She stayed patiently at my side through the challenges of hydrocephelus (and there are many) and tolerated a good deal of general crankiness as I realized I was not a perfect man at all. I made so many demands of her over 48 years of marriage. Certainly not a perfect man, by a long shot.
Well, she is a weaver by trade. She builds fabric thread by thread, always with a plan, always with an objective. Mistakes challenge her and then she fixes them. Her diligence saved the lives of more than one of my beloved sons, and now has likely saved my life, too.
Dr. Chowdry sent rafts of assistants to ask questions as I was healing. Who is president? What day of the week is it? He sent an army of associates and aides to squeeze my toes and poke my legs and ask where I was and what my birthday was. Answering “I am here,” does not satisfy them. They want to hear “upstairs at Evanston Hospital “or something they can use to conclude my brain has not been damaged and I am recovering. I wish I had written down every name so I could thank them, not only for their diligence, but for their demeanor. Thank you, eternally!
Two weeks after the operation I returned to his office for my post op checkup and stitch removal. For the record, I do believe Dr. Chowdry has as great a set of hands as any brain surgeon you could find. Did it hurt? Sure, you don’t get a hole in your head without some pain. You don’t get a tube snaked down into your belly without some pain. Aleve handled it. And enduring thanks to Dr. Chowdry for doing his job so well.
All that being cleared away, I started to think about President Trump again and checked in on the news. Damn, still president! Still nutty as a shit-house rat, as offensive, too. My last check in showed him angering just about everyone and claiming the economy is doing stunningly well. And dwelling on crowd sizes! He managed to upset Congress, the Israel Jews, the American Jews, the…oh, what the hell? The Democrats are taking note, I am sure.
It’s grand to be back. I am, once again, truly happy to be here! Thanks to all of you for your wonderful notes!