On October 5, 2017, a lumbar puncture revealed that the pressure in Matt’s brain was too high. Dangerously too high.
The doctor at Columbia recommended surgery. Immediately. Not for the tumor—the pros and cons and dangers of removing the tumor in Matt’s left parietal lobe were still under consideration by the tumor board—but for the implantation of a VP shunt. Based on my imperfect memory, a VP shunt is a medical device that diverts cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from the ventricles, thereby relieving the pressure on the brain. Theoretically, if the pressure on Matt’s brain lessened, he’d be less symptomatic.
The lumbar puncture had relieved some small portion of the pressure. Matt’s heart rate had become less erratic, his breathing had become steady, but he remained semi-conscious. As the hours passed and Matt remained difficult to rouse, the doctors downgraded their language. No longer was the shunt procedure definitely going to help. Only hopefully it would help.
Around 4:15, just minutes before he was to be taken down for pre-op, the doctors managed to wake Matt. He was, unsurprisingly and understandably, confused. He didn’t know where he was and he couldn’t understand why he was going to surgery.
He wanted to talk to Duke. He wanted to hear from the doctor there—the one he trusted wholeheartedly—that he should go forward with the surgery. I tried to explain about the pressure in his brain, the heart rate dips and terrifying breathing gaps. I told him Duke was on board with this plan. But he nevertheless needed to hear from Duke himself. He didn’t trust me to make the decision for the shunt, and in turn, I started to doubt myself. That renegotiating relationships. At the eleventh hour, while Matt was in pre-op, I called Duke and left a desperate message: please confirm we are doing the right thing.
Duke didn’t call back before Matt was taken in to surgery. They didn’t call back for nearly 24 hours. I spent the next few hours reminding myself that all the doctors—at Columbia and Duke—believed this was a life saving surgery. Without the shunt—
I can’t even begin to finish the sentence.
Matt’s parents arrived shortly after he was taken in for surgery. (After the lumbar puncture revealed the level of pressure in Matt’s brain, everything happened so much faster than we’d expected.) We sat in the surgical area waiting room, a windowless, joyless room crowded with other families, who were undoubtedly living through their own long days. The kids called to tell me about their days and H broke down on the phone. He wanted me to just come home and be home. That mom guilt. I knew I’d been mostly absent all week—all month, really. I told him I loved him and things would be better soon.
Three hours later, Matt’s surgery was completed. The neurosurgeon let us know there had been no complications. We—Matt’s parents and I—headed to the recovery room to see Matt.
He was groggy due to the anesthesia. Groggy, but, maybe just slightly more himself. We wouldn’t know for hours. Matt’s parents offered to stay with him until he was brought up to a regular room. I gratefully, and with a fair amount of guilt, accepted the offer.
Around 8:15, I headed home. Around 8:36, I reached a dead stop on the highway. Just ahead of me, a tractor-trailer had flipped over and fuel had spilled all over the road. I sat on the highway for the next four hours while I waited for the police to reverse the direction of the line of cars that had piled up behind me. I learned three lessons that night. (1) Don’t drive into the city on a quarter tank of gas. (2) When Waze fails, don’t blindly follow the car in front of you—chances are he is not going in the same direction as you, despite being trapped by the same tractor-trailer accident. (3) On those very long and most exhausting days, don’t underestimate the value of a sister who will stay up late to keep you company on the phone or friends who will research average time spent in traffic during fuel spill cleanups.
Matt’s parents left the hospital around 11:15 (and took a different way home). A CT scan had confirmed the shunt had been placed successfully and Matt was resting peacefully, after waking fully and demanding pizza (which was the most Matt-like demand he’d made in days).
By the time I arrived home, I was exhausted—physically, emotionally, and mentally—ready to hire a psychic-medium to perform a sage cleanse (without exception, every story I write includes a psychic and a little magic, and this one is apparently no different), and grateful.
Grateful that Matt’s surgery was a success and we had every reason to believe we were on the verge of our next upswing.
Grateful that I hadn’t been just a few minutes earlier on that highway, that my path hadn’t crossed the tractor-trailer’s.
Grateful for one more day of hope.