Around 1 or 2 a.m. on July 11, 2010, my wife, Michelle, drove me to the hospital. As it turned out, I was having a stroke. Actually, I’m a little confused about that. According to Wikipedia, about 87% of what we call strokes are of the ischemic variety, which means the blood flow to the brain is interrupted by a blockage. A clot, or perhaps plaque, gets stuck in an artery, and blocks the blood flow to part of the brain, killing cells and causing general mayhem. Being a hemophiliac in good standing, I certainly did not have a clot blocking the blood flow. What I had is a hemorrhagic stroke, which is completely different. If only 13% of strokes were of this hemorrhagic type, did it really count as a stroke?
Instead of no blood getting to my brain, far too much was—just not the right way. If I read the doctor’s notes correctly, I was actually bleeding in two separate places. The major hemorrhage was about halfway back on the right side. There was also a place in the front of my brain, also on the right, that was bleeding. In the long run, this hemorrhage was blocking blood from getting to where it was really needed, so maybe it was a stroke after all.
Eventually, I bled so much that most of my brain was pushed into the left side of my head. So much pressure was placed on the left side of my brain that it caused something called Kernohan’s notch. Even though it sounds like a New England tourist site, Kernohan’s notch is a condition that makes a stroke act like it happened on the other side.
As you probably know, each side of your brain controls the opposite side of your body. The right side of your brain controls your left side, so the left side of your brain is in charge of the right arm and leg. In most strokes, if it’s on the right side, like mine was, your left arm and leg might become paralyzed, or become spastic, or otherwise not fun. But when you have Kernohan’s notch, things get turned around, so even though my stroke was on the right side of my brain, it was my right side that exhibited the signs of a stroke in progress. This caused the doctors to think the stroke was on the left side at first, but the CT scan got things straightened out.
About this time, the doctors told Michelle she should notify the rest of the family that I was dying. They were going to operate on me and relieve the pressure, but the surgeon was pretty sure he was operating on a dead man. This, as you might imagine, had a devastating effect on Michelle, and we are still dealing with the consequences. She thinks I should write an article about what happens to the caregivers in these situations, and I will just as soon as I can.
Now what I’ve told you so far is what I’ve learned in the last 18 months or so. I have absolutely no memory of anything that happened after I sent my posting, “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” off to the editors late at night on the 10th. For fans of irony, that posting talked about how we were going to have to start paying attention to the shifting bleeding patterns of this first generation of geriatric hemophiliacs. Personally, I would have much preferred the irony of reprising a bleed from my youth. Say a tooth, or perhaps a knee bleed. Irony aside, I sent the posting off on the 10th, and I found myself sitting in a hospital bed several weeks later.
About four weeks later, I became aware that I was in the hospital. Since I wasn’t surprised to find myself there, I had to assume I knew it all along and just didn’t tell myself. Talking to the nurses, I started piecing together what happened. Over the next couple days I found out my right eye didn’t usually open, although when it did, or I used my fingers to open it, it worked just fine. I also had a tendency to drool out off the right side of my mouth, which led me to invent my own emoticon. It’s just too bad I never use them. ;-)...
The major problems, however, were my right arm and leg. They could both feel heat and cold, touch and all that stuff, and they weren’t paralyzed, but they very definitely led lives of their own. I would ask, demand, plead with my hand to hold a piece of toast while the left hand spread some jam on it, and it would wave to the housekeeper vacuuming the hall. And my leg just refused to do anything. It had worked just fine for 63 years, but now it insisted it was going to have a lie down and perhaps some lemonade on the porch.
For the next several weeks, I went to physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy every day, and tried to get the various parts of me to work together again. After four or five more weeks, the hospital decided they had done all they could and sent me off to a rehabilitation hospital. I had very definitely done the impossible and lived. Now I had to figure out what that meant.
For the next couple months, life at the rehab place was pretty much like life in the hospital. Mornings and afternoons full of therapy, working to regain control over my arm and leg. Eventually, my eye started opening up more often, and I could sometimes walk 20, maybe even 30, feet. I still looked like the love child of the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster when I walked, but there came a day when the rehabilitation hospital felt it was time for me to go home.
One of the things I learned while I was at the rehab place was that I had that operation. Every now and then, an ambulance would take me to see various doctors for follow-up exams. Often, I would be meeting them for the first time. Not really, of course, but they had cared for me during those weeks missing from my memories. One afternoon, I found myself in a surgeon’s office being told how he had removed a large piece of my skull and poked around, looking for what was bleeding and relieving some of the pressure on my brain. He told me he felt at the time that he was really doing an autopsy, which really made me stare into the darkness that night while I tried to come to terms with almost dying and not being aware of the fact.
I felt all over my head and found a groove that the saw had made when he opened me up. If it is the outline of the piece he took out—I really have no reason to doubt it because I know it wasn’t there before all of this—it was about the size of my hand.
Now that I finally have me back at home, I see that the word count of this article has gotten to the point where the editors start clearing their throats and talking about wrapping things up. Of course, we’re just getting to what it was I wanted to talk about, but I think that will have to wait for a week—or two at the most. I still have to type one-handed, although we are making two-handed progress. (Now I only have to correct half of what my right hand does.) But my right hand is doing very well operating the mouse now.