By Rebecca Lewis @torontoblondie
Photo by @innayas
When I was seventeen, I had brain surgery.
The irony is that these words, brain surgery, are still scary to me. I like to avoid saying them out loud. I think this is because in retrospect they make my experience seem so overwhelming - part of me doesn’t even believe it happened to me. Instead, I prefer to think of my surgery as the experience that gave me my life back, and I hope other people who hear my story think of it this way too. I think of it as something that I had to go through so I could be here now.
Throughout my childhood, I remember having frequent headaches. They were something I became used to and something I learned to cope with. But at the beginning of grade twelve, my headaches got worse. I don’t like to take pain medication unless I’m experiencing a level of pain that is preventing me from getting through my day - that was how bad my headaches became. My pain also became consistently localized, a throbbing that would start right above my left eye and spread to the back of my head.
My headaches would always hit mid-afternoon, so I started to bring a bottle of Advil to school with me. Most days, the Advil didn’t help. I would take it anyway, suck it up and go straight to my room when I got home to try to sleep it off. Do you remember life at seventeen years old? I was worried about getting good grades so I would be accepted into my university of choice, and simultaneously trying to figure out how to get my crush on the football team to notice me. I figured I was stressed out, and that it would get better. I never considered any other possibility.
But my body was giving me so many signs. At this time, as my headaches were getting worse, my pediatrician was running tests on me for a different issue. I was seventeen and still didn’t have my period. My bloodwork showed that my hormone levels were totally out of whack and nowhere near the level they should have been for my age. Crazy enough, this was the only reason I ever went in for an MRI, my headaches weren’t something I originally brought up to my doctor. My MRI came back showing accumulated fluid in my brain.
My doctor told me that the fluid in my brain wasn’t flowing properly, so my third ventricle had become severely enlarged. It was so enlarged that it was pressing on my pituitary gland and preventing it from functioning properly. As I had just learned in my grade twelve biology class, the pituitary gland is the tiny but very powerful little organ at the bottom of our brain that controls our body’s hormone production. All of a sudden, everything made sense - my pituitary gland wasn’t sending out the proper signals to my body, so my body wasn’t producing the necessary hormones. My headaches were most likely caused by the huge build-up of pressure inside my head. My pediatrician referred me to a Neurosurgeon at Sick Kids Hospital.
This is when everything started to happen very quickly. My Neurosurgeon at Sick Kids needed another MRI to determine exactly what was going on in my head. When he saw the scan, he scheduled my surgery for the very next day. I remember my Neurosurgeon saying he didn’t know how I was getting up every morning, going to school every day and functioning as well as I was. He felt I must have a very high tolerance for pain. I didn’t even really have a chance to process what was happening, but obviously the situation was serious. The plan was to perform a Third Ventriculostomy, which would create a secondary pathway to my spine so the fluid in my brain could drain and remove the pressure from my pituitary gland.
My surgery was a major trial for my family but it was a turning point in my life. Thinking back now, I never considered that there was any chance I would not wake up. Today, ten years and way too many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy later, this would be my biggest fear. Mostly, I remember my parents telling me how much they loved me and that when I woke up I would feel so much better. I had no idea how terrified they were, and am so thankful they both put on such a brave face for me.
People say Sick Kids Hospital is the happiest place in the world - they’re not lying. Although I was in recovery, my time there was incredibly happy. I can’t put into words the amount of love and support I felt. When I left Sick Kids, I was a different person. I was ecstatic to no longer be experiencing the daily headaches I had become so accustomed to, but my experience also made me very aware of my health. I became intensely interested in nutrition, I wanted to know as much as I could about what to feed my body to keep it strong and functioning efficiently.
I grew up doing a lot of ballet, but for the first time I started to really understand the benefits of movement and a good sweat. I began to learn to love and appreciate my body for everything it is capable of doing for me, something I still try to remind myself of often.
The way each little cell in our bodies works together to keep us breathing, moving and experiencing is pretty remarkable. As the one single thing that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives, shouldn’t we be taking the best possible care of our bodies?
Today, I try my best to eat whole, nourishing foods and I move my body because I can, but also because it keeps me sane. A lot of people comment on my positivity - they tell me they wish they could have my positive perspective on life. I credit so much of my positivity to my life experiences, but I also think life is a whole lot easier to navigate when you do it from a place of gratitude. While I am still dealing with the consequences of my condition, I feel so incredibly grateful for the way it all turned out. It taught me to listen to my body and the signs it is giving me. It helped me accept that my pace in life is not necessarily going to be everyone else’s pace, but that’s okay. It helped me realize that life is messy, and things don’t always go the way we plan, but that the challenges we face always help us grow and gain understanding. And ultimately, it taught me to find beauty in the little things.