First in a series about my journey back to life after brain cancer surgery in 2004 and the depression that followed.
Life is uncertain. We often take living for granted but no one really knows if they will wake up the next morning. Mozart said it was a great blessing to be aware of one’s mortality.
Living life by principles is better than just wandering through it. Still, the urgent and the trivial consume our time, leaving the important things undone. Stephen Covey’s Quadrant 2 activities rarely get done because we’re consumed with the tyranny of the urgent, the ringing telephone, the next political blog article to write, etc.
People have told me I should write about my experiences, so I will get started on this story.
Stuttering Incident only a Foreshadow
In October 2003 I had a stuttering incident where I couldn’t fi-i-i-i-nish a sentence at the dinner table. An aura came over me and I said, “Wow, that was weird.” We had it checked out and the doctors thought it was a TIA (mini stroke). Turns out it was really a petit mal seizure and the bomb would hit a few months later.
December 16, 2003
Another dinner table conversation, this time interrupted by a grand mal seizure. There were more clues and a correct diagnosis after numerous tests: probable low grade malignant brain tumor. I was scheduled for a biopsy in early January and told to go home and have a nice Christmas. We could read between the lines – it might be my last.
Long story short, the biopsy confirmed it was an oligodendroglioma. Neurosurgeons at the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center at Henry Ford Hospital removed the tumor in March, 2004. I was awaked during part of the surgery, talking with a speech pathologist during the surgery. The surgeons froze part of my brain in steps while I was talking. If I couldn’t speak, they knew not to remove that part of the tumor because I would likely have permanent deficits. Fortunately they were able to remove the entire tumor.
A year of chemotherapy followed the surgery. GM was very good to me throughout this ordeal, giving me an extended leave of absence and half time work at a less demanding job when I returned.
List-Maker, List-Maker, Make Me a List
The tumor was in the speech area of my brain, the part involved with list-making and organizing. I worked with a speech therapist throughout the summer, staring out the dining room window working on my homework, struggling to make a list of ten things that are green: “Oh yeah, grass, bushes, trees.”
Embarrassed when tested on naming vegetables in 90 seconds, all I could think of was broccoli, carrots and cauliflower, and then my mind went blank for a very awkward 80 seconds.
The brain is kind of like a Microsoft Windows program, which has icons, drop-down menus and keyboard short cuts. With the regular paths severed by the surgery, my brain developed new pathways to get the job done that summer.
The final exam was planning and executing a back yard landscaping project. Making a list of the steps involved was the hard part: tearing out the old bushes, preparing the soil, buying the new bushes, planting them, planting new grass seed. Doing the work in the sunshine was good therapy.
The lilac bushes are have long been taller than me as I mow the grass each year – a real blessing to be alive and physically able to do things like driving again. My first trip to Meijer was memorable, as I couldn’t drive for six months.
Ameri-I-Can, not I-Can’t
Returning to work was a scary experience. I had long term memory but had difficulty with short-term memory, background noise and learning new things. Gradually these deficits faded and I’m able to contribute fully at work again. Focusing on what you have and not what’s missing is key. The last few years I’ve been hitting on all cylinders again.
As difficult as a brain tumor is, a far bigger mountain for me and my family was the depression that followed. My mood swings got worse until I was hospitalized in January, 2007. By the grace of God, I also survived that life-threatening illness and plan to tell the story to encourage others with family members suffering from mental illness.
When depressed I honestly couldn’t think of three things to be thankful for, a darker cloud than not being able to name vegetables. Life didn’t seem worth living, but I was stubborn enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other. With lots of prayers and encouragement I persevered. I’d been told by others that it was a season and things would get better, but didn’t believe it could be true for me.
Make a List of Assets and Use Them
The best advice we got was from a fellow engineer who had the same type of brain tumor five years before. He encouraged us in February, 2004 with a three ring binder and a one-page summary. Hit it with all the tools in your arsenal: conventional medical, alternative medicine, spiritual, diet, exercise, etc.
Later I used that same method to fight the depression, leaning heavily on God again. Lately I’ve been brushing up on my German and have published word by word translations of the Loreley poem and Silent Night. Knowing and singing hymns are one of the things that sustained me during both trials. Music connects with the soul, and the theology in good hymns is embedded in the mind.
A New Bible Translation
Having recently started a word-by-word translation of Martin Luther’s Bible from German to English, I’m planning to publish the book of Matthew a chapter at a time, sometimes with commentary. Hopefully people will contribute to a discussion on what the text says and debate my opinions on it.
Giving Back and Paying it Forward
With some foreign born coworkers, I have also helped the new USA Melting Pot club get off the ground. This club is unique in focusing on the mingling of all ethnic groups, regardless of country of origin or how long their ancestors have been here.
We have several meetings so far, with Chinese, Indian, Korean, German, Croatianand Brazilian cultures and their contributions to America. We also cover outdoor activities like bicycling, canoeing, hiking and camping; a January topic was cross-country and downhill skiing.
You can read more about our club in Weilou Gao’s post. Our meeting on Canada when Rick Vriesen presented included some interesting facts about Canada that are not well known. Consul Vicente Sanchez spoke on Mexico at another meeting.
So watch for more articles about my illness and the Bible translation in the midst of articles about politics, history and travel.