A "Death and Dying" Lady Confronts Death

(Article appeared in the May 9, 2013 edition of The Montclair Times)

There was absolutely no warning that it was a brain tumor. I had been having trouble accessing words. Was it no big deal – a normal, if annoying, aspect of aging? Was it Alzheimer's? I was unconcerned. I was terrified.

I found reasons to put off seeing a neurologist. Finally, a good friend insisted I make an appointment. I dutifully complied.

When I saw the neurologist, he didn't seem particularly worried because I was having a good day. I had good days and bad days. It was rather like bringing in a car to a mechanic because there is a worrisome, strange noise, which then mysteriously disappears as one is pulling into the shop.

He suggested I get an MRI. He said, "I don't expect it to reveal anything troublesome, but let's see what the results show and we'll discuss it. That will be the next step in our working together."

I scheduled the MRI, but I wasn't concerned. When someone - or at least myself - thinks of symptoms of a brain tumor, they think of headaches. They think of blacking out. They think of a sudden change in eyesight. I didn't have any of those symptoms that one might think of; so it never crossed my mind that I had a brain tumor.

After the MRI was completed, a rather solemn looking gentleman walked into the room and said, "The radiologist needs to discuss the test results with you, please don't leave." It sounded ominous, but perhaps I was overreacting.

I was not.

The tumor lit up like a Christmas tree on the MRI. Even to my unpracticed eye I could tell it was relatively huge. "Almost always benign," the radiologist said. Good. "Must be immediately operated on." Not so good.

The radiologist couldn't understand how I was still walking around, why I didn't have more symptoms and, frankly, why I wasn't already dead. Suddenly, in a split second, I went from being basically okay, to being in mortal danger.

I was told to go immediately to the St. Barnabas emergency room. The doctors were adamant that I not drive; I was apparently a ticking time bomb. They would call an ambulance. What?! Were they seriously insisting that I not drive the three miles to the ER? Ridiculous! My need to control at least one aspect of what was happening to me became paramount. I argued my right to drive and won a hollow victory as I marched to the parking lot to retrieve my car.

Everything seemed unreal. I felt like Alice after she had fallen down the rabbit hole. Before I left for the emergency room, I phoned my internist of twenty-five years to tell him what I still couldn't quite believe. He told me that he would take care of everything. He recommended a "brilliant" neurosurgeon whom he said he would contact. Someone from the surgical team would meet me at the ER. "Trust me," he said. And I did.

As I drove to the emergency room, I wasn't thinking of my impending surgery. It was very dark and I have a terrible sense of direction. I remember thinking, "How the hell do I get there?" Apparently, I had neglected to ask for directions. Eventually I did find my way. I was seen right away and was immediately hospitalized.

I have no memory of my consultation with Dr. Otakar Hubschmann, my neurosurgeon. These days, people omnivorously search the Internet for information about their medical conditions. Not I. While ignorance, in my case, was certainly not bliss, it was apparently necessary for I'm told I asked few questions - odd for someone who always wants to know everything about everything.

I had often been called "the death and dying lady." Working with people who were either facing death or were dealing with the death of a loved one was one of my specialties in my practice. I was passionate about it, and I seemed to be good at what I did.

I was considered an "expert" in helping others to face their own mortality, but had no clue how to face my own. How could this be? Did I not know by heart Kubler-Ross's five stages of death? Had I not been elected an associate by Columbia University's continuing seminar on death? Had I not published books and articles on the subject?

Oh, that. Forget about all that, for there was simply no time. No time to go through Kubler-Ross's five stages. No time to aspire to be noble or develop a greater appreciation of life. No time at all. Soon I was being wheeled into the operating room.

I think what I was clinging to is that my doctor had told me that the neurosurgeon was a brilliant, very accomplished man. I was now in his hands and I thought, "Whatever happens, happens." The bottom line was that there was no choice and I think that made it easier in a funny kind of way.

It didn't occur to me that I might die. I know how bizarre that sounds; but I remember thinking, having this thought, that what was happening was not happening to me. I was almost observing myself and I was thinking, "Oh, this is interesting; I really should take notes because this is so interesting." Maybe I would do an article about it sometime in the future.

It never occurred to me that there might be no future. I don't know why. I can't explain it. Of course, I understood on an intellectual level the seriousness of what I was facing; but on an emotional level, obviously I couldn't grasp it. I only found out afterwards that my odds were not good.

 

Not good at all.

The operation lasted more than six hours. Afterwards, my brain was severely swollen. No one knew how I would emerge. Prayer groups prayed for me and the surgical team watched and waited. In the end I did not die and I could move and speak. And I was still me.

After the surgery, and a brief stay at Kessler Rehabilitation Institute, I came home. And people wanted to comfort me.

I had listened for years to my patient's stories of the hurt caused by well-meaning but ultimately insensitive remarks meant to be comforting. In my experience, people rarely understand that their very presence - sometimes just sitting in silence, holding someone's hand or intently listening without saying a word - can be profoundly healing. Sometimes there are just no "right" words to say.

I had so often been the interpreter for my patients of other people's motivations when they fumbled in their attempts at comforting. Trying to analyze and dissect what other people really meant when the words came out wrong, while at the same time validating my patients' hurt or angry feelings, was a big part of what I did as a therapist. Was I now supposed to do that for myself? The very thought was exhausting.

At first, I played the "brain tumor card" shamelessly. I soon discovered that it could be very effective at getting what I wanted and being forgiven for almost anything. "Oh the brain tumor" I would sigh, as my voice trailed off. I was rather enjoying the extra benefits I was accruing.

However, that got old pretty quickly and my priorities began to change; something so often described by my patients who had faced death. I had always been a perfectionist with scant patience when things didn't go as I thought they should. Now, any mistake, inconvenience or disappointment paled in comparison to what I had been through (or might have had to go through if the surgery had not gone well). I had by no means turned into a Pollyanna, but I gradually noticed (and other people began to notice) that almost nothing upset me anymore.

One of the things that I thought about a lot, especially after I realized that I would recover, was "Why me?" Why did I recover when others did not? It was basically the opposite of when something bad happens and a person asks, "Why me?" I thought, "Why was I spared?" Was it pre-destination? Was it God? Was it another force, a higher power? I didn't know. Was I spared for a reason? Was I meant to do something? Was my work on earth not yet completed? Only time will tell.