A flicker of light that changed my world
The neurosurgeon walked inside the office, where my friend and I anxiously awaited. Tall and handsome, he looked like a gentle giant. His thick red mane illuminated the room. He shook our hands and introduced himself as Dr. R. Taking a few steps towards the wall with a screen projector, he flipped the switch and turned my world upside down with a flicker of the light.
On November 21, 2007, Dr. R. intently studied the brightly lit images of the MRI of my brain. I observed and wondered why it took him so long to reveal the cause for my unrest. Finally, Dr. R. turned around, looked at me with genuine care and a voice full of regret, and slowly announced my death sentence.
"You needed surgery yesterday. You have a tumor the size of a chicken egg at the base of your skull. It is about to kill you."
It took me a minute to process. How was it even possible? I suspected something was wrong for a few months, but I would never have thought that my condition was so grave. In nine days, I went from being a healthy fifty-three-year-old woman to someone with hopes extinguished for the future. I refused to believe it.
"'Doc, when I grow them, I grow them big.' I used sarcasm as an invisible shield to protect myself and diffuse the morbidity of our conversation. The neurosurgeon gave me a weak, sad smile in return. 'Can you perform my surgery?"' I continued.
"I can, but the last one like this I did was ten years ago. I am kind of out of practice," Dr. R. said.
"What am I to do now?" I asked.
"If you were my sister, I would send you to Tampa General, where the world-known neurosurgeons perform these surgeries daily. You would be in good hands."
I nodded in agreement before the doctor stepped out of the room to schedule an appointment for me on Tuesday, two days after Thanksgiving weekend. When he returned, he handed me a slip of paper with a phone number and instructed me to call the Tampa General on Monday. He then picked up his phone and called a Radiology center to order another emergency MRI.
"Make sure you wait for my patient tonight to perform this test. It must be done." He said in a tone that didn't accept a no for an answer.
"I want you to fill this steroid prescription as soon as possible. It is the highest dose I could prescribe. I hope it will save your life before you reach Tampa General."
The neurosurgeon came over, hugged me, and wished me good luck.
My friend and I got back into her car and drove to the Radiology Center for the MRI. It was Thursday, a day before Thanksgiving, and the place was about to close for the long weekend.
I walked inside, and suddenly everyone treated me like a celebrity. The medical staff was amicable and caring. I basked in the medical personnel's undivided attention until I realized why. Soon after, with the speed of thought, my euphoria evaporated.
Inside the MRI machine, I relived the recent events of my life. I thought about what brought me here. My malady began two years ago when I had a stroke-like episode.
It happened on Sunday when I went to bed exhausted from doing various chores. As soon as I made myself comfortable, I fell asleep. I was about to enter the deep, blissful rest stage when my inability to breathe woke me up. Noisily, I jumped out of bed.
My husband, disturbed by the commotion, woke up and asked: "What is going on?"
"I do not know."
I tried saying these words, but for some reason, the sound of them did not translate the meaning.
At the same time, I realized that half of my body was numb. I could not move my left limb, and the tongue inside my mouth was stiff. Scared, I tried to process what just happened to concentrate on one thing only—I had to make my tongue flex. I fixed my gaze on a candy dish on my night table as I looked around the room. With my right hand, I reached out and popped one of the sweets into my mouth. Sucking on it released the muscles inside and made my tongue move. A few seconds later, the sensation returned to the left side of my body, and I could explain to my husband what had transpired minutes before.
Physically drained and psychologically exhausted, I went back to bed, making a mental note to see a doctor. In the morning, I got dressed, went into my car, and drove to work. As soon as I arrived at the office, I picked up the phone and called my physician. The nurse agreed to schedule an emergency visit, and on my lunch break, I went to see the doctor.
When I saw him, I declared I had a stroke last night. He asked me why and I explained. After that, he ordered a carotid artery scan, which returned negative. I felt relieved. Soon after that, I also lost my job and health coverage. While I was unemployed, my health did not give me any problems. I pushed the memory of the scary episode to the back of my mind and concentrated on funding another employment.
In July of 2007, I landed a job with a medical establishment that guaranteed my health insurance coverage from the start of my work. I felt exhilarated because having this coverage was the main reason for finding a job.
My husband's auto-repair business couldn't afford to purchase health coverage during the housing collapse because most of his customers were in construction. People stopped building new homes, and many contractors became unemployed. My husband lost his clientele.
I began my training with the new company. My trainer, a woman with family drama issues, did not have good people skills. She upset me and worried that I would be unable to learn everything I needed to know to perform this work correctly. During my training, she often disappeared to deal with a family issue and left me on my own. My stress level exponentially increased, and shortly after I started training, my scary episode returned. This time it came back with a vengeance. I had it almost every night. It lasted longer and longer each time it occurred. I knew I had to address this issue with a doctor again, but my daughter was getting married in October, and I thought I would postpone seeing one until after the wedding.
We flew to Dreams Tulum on Mexican Riviera to celebrate the happy union. I did not say anything about my health issues to my children and made my husband swear not to tell them either.
My daughter and I spent hours at a spa on the wedding day. We had a full-body wrap and a massage scheduled. On the massage table, I was about to tell the masseuse not to touch the base of my skull when she placed her hands and kneaded the area. Her action provoked another episode. By then, I had already noticed the pattern that I stopped breathing when my body was in the horizontal position.
Abruptly, I sat up and, with my hands, motioned to the girl to bring me some water. I must have looked ridiculous, wrapped in a sheet as I gestured. Somehow, my message came across, and after I swallowed some water, my speech was restored.
After I told my daughter my story, she became genuinely concerned and asked me to promise her to see a doctor. I calmed her down and told her I would do that as soon as I returned to the States. We spent the rest of the week dancing at the wedding, swimming in the ocean and the pool, playing with our granddaughter, and doing fun things. I did not have another episode for the rest of our stay at Dreams Tulum.
When I came to work on Monday, I asked my friends to recommend a doctor. I had a new insurance policy and could only see in-network providers. Someone gave me a name, and I called to schedule an appointment. The second week in November, I went to see her. Inside the office, I didn't feel comfortable. The doctor looked too young and inexperienced. Even though she asked the right question, her bedside manners left much to be desired. It seemed like she did not hear me, but the receptionist gave me two test scripts when I went to pay for my visit. One was for a carotid artery and the other for a brain scan.
I didn't worry about the first test because I knew nothing was wrong with my carotid artery despite experiencing the symptoms of a stroke, The brain scan, however, concerned me, and a few days later, I found out why.
I was at work when I received a call from a doctor's office. The nurse urged me to schedule an MRI test and gave me a number. I hung up and dialed it almost immediately. When I made the connection, I asked about the availability. The line went silent for a while before I heard, "How about right now?" I stopped breathing for a second, realizing that my issue was severe.
I hung up the phone and went to my supervisor to ask permission to leave. The hospital was not too far away, and I asked for an early lunch. She let me go. In a daze, I shuffled toward my car. Sitting inside, I felt an overwhelming fear of foreboding take control over me. Reluctantly, I started the engine and drove to face my fears.
A friendly young woman greeted me with a smile. She explained how long it would take to produce the digital images and how many of them she had to take.
"Are you, by any chance, claustrophobic?'
"No, I am not, but I worry about what to do if the episode happens inside the machine. I usually stop breathing when I am in the horizontal position." I explained.
She handed me a panic button and told me to press it if needed. It put me somewhat at ease, and a few minutes later, after the technician adjusted the cage over my head, she effortlessly slid me inside the vast apparatus. I closed my eyes and began to panic but stopped myself short. Think happy thoughts. You can do it.
Almost instantly, an image of my granddaughter appeared, making me happy. I took a couple of deep breaths and started to meditate. I had experience meditating and knew it was the only way for me to get through this unpleasant ordeal. A few seconds later, the meditation transported me to my favorite place. Once again, I saw myself rushing down the hill to my rendezvous place with Papa.
At thirty-three, my father opened this ability in me to communicate with his spirit. For the last twenty years, whenever I wanted to see and talk to him, I needed to meditate to get to the tranquil place where he usually waited for me.
I lost Papa when I was fifteen and discovered he was always by my side seventeen years later. This time it was no exception. I came down to the bottom of the hill and saw Papa. He sat on the white wrought iron bench and waited for me. I approached him, and he stood up to envelop me in his loving embrace.
I loved coming to this place. It was so peaceful there, and it seemed like everyone, and every living thing got along with one another in this tranquil place. I smiled for the first time since my diagnosis, noticing that I was no longer afraid.
Together Papa and I walked towards a boat anchored nearby. He helped me inside, pulled himself in, picked up the oars, and took me around the lake for our ritualistic ride. I always enjoy watching the fauna and flora of this magical place. I admire the African and Sandhill Cranes gliding over the lake. I appreciate the melodious chirps of lorikeets and take in their colorful beauty. But, most of all, I am in awe of the black and white swans that swim not far from our boat. Their majestic beauty outlined by the emerald hue of the lake and the sapphire of the sky takes my breath away, making me think I could spend an eternity in Papa's company. Mesmerized, I was engrossed in observing the serenity of the place when Papa's beautiful baritone interrupted my reverie.
"It is not your time yet," he said.
I felt relieved hearing his words.
"I am afraid, Papa," I said.
"You will be fine. I will be watching over you." Papa said.
He then turned the boat around and brought it back to shore. We disembarked and went to rest on the white wrought iron bench. I was relaxed when I saw a beautiful cathedral to the right of me from the corner of my eye. I have not seen it before on my previous visits.
The sight of it fascinated me. I got up and was about to take a step forward when a powerful voice forbade me out of nowhere.
"It is not your time yet. You cannot enter it. Not now." I heard these words repeated. Confused, I looked at Papa. He smiled at me and said, "You should heed the voice."
At that moment, I realized the voice I heard belonged to God.
"Oh, Eternal One, I want to make a deal with you. Please promise to bring me back more or less alive. I don't want to be a vegetable, a burden to my loved ones, hooked up to a respirator. If you promise I will be more or less normal after the surgery, I will do my best to get better as quickly as possible."
At this point of my recollection, the technician announced that he was coming over to get me out of the MRI machine.
My friend and I left the Radiology Office and headed toward my car. I got in and drove it home. It was the day before Thanksgiving when I received the devastating news about my health.
My car moved through the darkness, and the mood I felt matched its shade. It was late at night when I parked on the driveway of my house. I went inside and informed my husband about the upcoming surgery. I was too exhausted to get into details and went directly to bed.
Upon arising, I contemplated canceling Thanksgiving dinner, but the more I thought about it, the more reasons I found to be grateful. Thanksgiving Day held a special meaning in my heart and has become my favorite holiday to celebrate since I came to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
In 1977, anti-Semitism and I signed our divorce papers when I stood on the holy grounds of the American Embassy in Moscow in anticipation of our entry Visas on Thanksgiving Day. That day I stopped living in fear.
On November 22, 2007, I found another reason to celebrate with joy my upcoming surgery. Knowing that it would be performed by the world-known neurosurgeons put my mind at ease.
My guests arrived, and I reluctantly participated in conversations around the table. My heart was not in it. I could not stop thinking about what my future holds.
The day after Thanksgiving, I found the strength to inform my children about my plight. How can a mother tell her flesh and blood about her imminent demise? At fifty-three, I wasn't ready for that, but I managed to get through and prepare my children for this possibility.
I called Tampa General on Monday to find the appointment time with the neurosurgeon. My daughter flew in from New York the same day, and my son was coming on Tuesday to meet us in Tampa.
We left at dawn to get to the hospital early in the morning. My friend drove my daughter and me. We sat in silence for the entire four-hour trip, submerged in our thoughts. I dwelled in misery and was not up to talking.
Upon arriving at Tampa General, we walked inside the impressive-looking building, where a nurse ushered us inside the neurosurgeon's office at the appointed time. A few minutes later, three doctors stepped in to start a Concilium. They flipped the switch, looked at the images of my brain, conversed with each other, and later took turns examining me. They asked me to push and pull with my hands and feet, making me wonder how these silly tests make sense in my diagnosis.
Later, Dr. V. took me outside the room. We walked a small distance, and on the way back, I thought I would not make it to the office, but I did. Inside, Dr. V. scheduled my surgery for Thursday and told me I had a fifty-fifty chance. But when he left, another doctor approached me. She held my hands and said, "Dr. V. likes to make his patients feel better. You have less than thirty percent of surviving this operation."
I looked into her eyes and said, "Thirty is just a number. I know I am coming back."
Dr. A., who I just found out was performing my craniotomy, witnessed our exchange and gave me a huge smile. In that instance, I knew I was in good hands.
My perseverance paid off. It took me two years to get back to normal after the flicker of light changed my life. A loss of hearing in the left ear was the ultimate price I paid. Fifteen years later, I am living proof that miracles happen.