A Hole in My Head: Musing about Brain Surgery

Two and a half months from today, I will allow Dr. Raymond Sekula, world-renowned neurosurgeon, to make an incision behind my left ear, drill out a quarter-size piece of my skull, open the lining of my brain and insert a microscopic teflon sponge between a blood vessel and the nerve it impinges. Then he’ll glue, paste and tape me up. All this to cure my rather rare hemifacial spasms and release me from the trimonthly injections of botox around my eye used to control the spasms for the past thirteen years. With luck, I’ll be up and walking the same day and ready to return home the next…or I could suffer hearing loss, swallowing difficulties, a stroke or death. Surgery is NOT for sissies. Boorah!

I pause here to whisper a prayer and gather in all those that my friends and family will send my way. Courage works best when infused with a huge dose of faith.

It began with a twitch. After intense concentration, such as grading eighty essays in one night or reading for four hours, the lower lid of my left eye would tremble. Not to worry. Eye strain, I rationalized. Not a big deal. But the twitch became a tremor became a clenching so bad I couldn’t see the page in front of me. I continued to soldier on, convinced that stress and the grading overload of a high school teacher were causing my problems. But when a student in the first row felt compelled to ask, “Mrs. Irvin, do you know your eye’s twitching?” I realized that my condition had grown beyond my control. I’d been outed.

The spasms moved down my cheek to my lip, then covered the left side of my scalp. I began to avoid social situations, since the focus on faces required for such interaction caused major flareups. I made an appointment with a local neurologist and waited to see if any of the drugs he prescribed would work. They didn’t. Next step: botox.

“Botulinum toxin (BTX),” Wikipedia proclaims, “is a neurotoxic protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.” Now, Wiki might not be the most academic of sites, but this definition is spot on.Botox is a poison, and the side effects can be brutal. As the years passed, my response to the medication became more pronounced: lid droop severe enough to close my eye,  conjunctivitis, facial weakness. The most problematic was the double vision. Imagine this. You’re driving down the highway and suddenly the headlights approaching you have doubled from two to four, one set canted above to the left, the other below to the right. Guess right and you avoid an accident. Guess wrong and you’re road kill. Yeah, not exactly an optimum way to navigate our roads. I tried driving with one eye closed, switching from right to left. The maneuver left me nauseous and slightly out of control. I do not adapt well to single vision. Several doctors recommended an eye patch. Aargh!

I decided I didn’t want to be a pirate for the rest of my life.

This far away from the procedure, I still feel comfortable and confident. The array of tests I just completed prove I do indeed have hemifacial spasms. (Apparently there are other conditions that could cause my symptoms.) The blood vessel that rubs against the nerve, causing a continual flow of impulses to the muscles in my eye, face and head, is quite clear on the MRI. A lateral spread and a hearing test provide a base line which can be evaluated during the surgery itself. I did my research. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is the leader in this particular condition and its treatment, so I’m in good hands. No, this is NOT an Allstate commercial, although my husband did work for them for thirty years.

So, here I am, on the cusp of a new adventure. The success rate of this surgical procedure is above 90%. Some people have instant relief. For others, the condition goes away in six to twelve months. I’m holding out for the immediate cure.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not cancer or heart disease. Many people suffer from far more serious conditions. But it is a quality-of-life issue and I am most anxious to reclaim my ability to socialize and drive and read with facility. I keep hearing that song by the Dixie Chicks: “I need a boy like you like a hole in my head…” and thinking, well, I’ll have a hole in my head for a while. But the bone will grow over the plug, my hair will grow back, the fierce headache will subside and, God willing, the spasms will be gone. Sounds like a fair trade.

P.S. Don’t tell my mom. She’ll freak out. Actually, she already knows, but she’s ninety-one and doesn’t remember everything. I’ve got airline tickets to Minneapolis in late August, a canoe trip planned for the fall, a workshop to present October 3 and reservations for Magna Cum Murder in Indianapolis and I don’t plan to miss a thing!

PSS. Prayers, positive vibes and hugs are graciously and gratefully accepted!