Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How life can change in an instant

I've been offline for a couple of weeks due to some very serious stuff happening in the real world. It has taught me (yet again) how life can change in an instant and that we shouldn't take anything for granted.

One of my friends (X) who was 33 weeks pregnant had been incredibly lethargic and "out of it" for most of her pregnancy. She couldn't seem to concentrate on anything for long and struggled with the most basic day-to-day activities - like getting up, getting dressed, making meals, etc. Something was clearly very wrong but nobody including her family and doctors knew what to do. I assumed that she was in a deep depression, although she kept on insisting that she wasn't. She developed severe gestational diabetes but wouldn't (or couldn't) remember to do the regular (four times a day) blood sugar tests without extreme prompting from her husband.

Finally she was convinced to check herself into the maternity hospital for a few days "to sort out some of her health issues" prior to the birth of her second child.

That night (a Monday) I had a terrible call from her husband. X wasn't depressed. She had a brain tumour. She could no longer remember her parents' names, her husband's job or her own phone number. It could be terminal. X & her husband are our closest friends, closer to us than much of our family. I was so sick and stressed by the news that I took the following day off work, unable to function.

Tuesday, an MRI confirmed the brain tumour but it looked more likely to be benign rather than cancerous. A tiny glimmer of good news.

Wednesday, the neurologist and obstetrician debated the risks and merits of operating on her brain while she was still pregnant (and possibly causing distress to the baby) or inducing the baby six weeks early (which had its own risks) and allowing the tumour to keep growing at its alarming rate while her body recovered sufficiently from a Cesarean before conducting the brain surgery.

On Thursday the decision was made to take out the baby. Friends and family waited tense for news knowing there was a real possibility we could lose either or both of them. Finally the news came that she had had a healthy boy. Two hours later we got the good news that she had survived the operation. We could start breathing again.

Friday, Saturday, her body was recovering. J & I were one of the very few non-family members allowed to see her, when we came to pick up her husband from the hospital. We were glad we did. Maybe she couldn't talk and maybe she was very tired but through gestures we could see that it was our friend X in there and she wasn't completely gone.

Sunday was the brain operation. The neurologist opened up her head and discovered that the tumour was twice as large as he expected. During a marathon 8 hour operation he removed about half the tumour & cutting the blood supply to the other part of the tumour before stapling her head back up and deciding to let her body recover further before going in on another angle in 6 weeks time.

Everything is relative. The neurologist is pleased with his work. The pathology has confirmed that the tumour is benign. Every day X has got a little bit better, is remembering more and is slowly, very slowly, regaining some of her motor skills. She is exhausted - even sitting up was hard work during the first few days.

Meanwhile her new son, thank God, is continuing to thrive. He will be out of the special care nursery and back home, long before his mother.

X's husband's life has been turned upside down. Even in the best case scenario he will be the primary carer of their two children (one of them a new born baby) and her for months. A long- fought for promotion has been put on the back burner. He is off work on compassionate leave, sick leave, primary carer leave, annual leave, long service leave - whatever leave he can find. He is better off than most people in this situation - it looks like he has the better part of a year's worth of accrued leave he can access - once he sorts it out with the HR Department. Which he doesn't have the energy for at the moment.

His family and in-laws are intelligent, educated and connected people. But even they are struggling with the bureaucratic red tape that is Medicare, health insurance and the various government allowances and payments that the family might be entitled to - if they can ever work out how to fill in the forms. Even the social worker assigned to the family can't help them completely. How less educated people or those for whom English is a second language manage, God only knows.

For the first fortnight everyone was running on adrenalin, wanting to help but not knowing what to do. X's freezer is over-flowing with food and her room looks like a florist shop. But adrenalin only lasts so long. We have to create a new normality that incorporates the reality of X's illness and long-term recovery. There is a good chance she will recover - but this could take months or even years. And there is the very real possibility that some functions may be impaired forever.

J & I are having some friends over for a BBQ on Sunday. I mentioned this casually to X's husband, expecting he wouldn't be coming. He asked me to keep reminding him about the BBQ all week because he wanted to, needed to, get back into some sort of normal life - including going to a Sunday BBQ even if he had a wife and child in hospital.

The whole event has, yet again, underscored for me what is important in life. To be able to get up in the morning, move around freely, knit a hat and read a good book is a wonderful thing. Everything else is trivia.

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