Saving My Life

By Dale Olen

At age 16, acne attacked my teenaged face and shoulders.  When it persisted, my parents took me to a dermatologist. At that time, dermatology thought the best way to cure acne was to burn and shrink the affected skin by x-rays.  So the doctor placed an x-ray machine close to my face and zapped me for what seemed like much more than a half-second click.

It was at that moment, I now think, that a tumor began gestating in the thin layers of tissue attached to the skull in my left frontal lobe.  Over the years (I just turned 75) that tiny tumor slowly grew. Called a meningioma, since it grows on/in the meninges (those layers of tissue on the skull), it didn’t interfere with my brain...or so it seemed.  But it did slowly grow to a point where it began pressing against the left front lobe of my brain. Two inches large by now, it pushed the brain across the line separating the left and right hemispheres of the brain, causing swelling in the brain. That’s when my thinking, emotions, and behavior began to change.

About two years ago, my wife, Joelyn, and I noticed my memory going south.  I struggled some finding the words I needed in talking and writing.  I began having difficulty solving simple daily problems, and I was more and more disorganized in daily activity.  But the biggest change disturbing me, my physical and mental energy were depleting.  A malaise settled in.  I felt depressed.

A year ago I sought counsel from my primary physician.  Was I moving into Alzheimer disease or dementia?  He didn’t think so, but referred me to a neurologist and onto neuropsychological testing and some psychotherapy. Nothing showed up and all the professionals thought I was just getting older and these cognitive/emotion issues “happen to all of us as we age.”                                  

Okay, I thought.  But the symptoms kept worsening, not dramatically, but we knew things weren’t improving. That’s when Joelyn got involved. She came with me back to my primary physician and told him what she saw going on. We both asked for an MRI to check that out.  My doctor agreed it was a good idea and arranged it.

The MRI was scheduled for March 11th, my 75th birthday. After the noisy procedure, we waited for the tech to come out and send us home.  She finally returned and told us the radiologist would contact my primary physician right away and he would call us at home in the next hour.  She ushered us to the door, took Joelyn’s hand and wished her good luck.  With me she shook my hand, looked at me, said nothing, and shook her head with a look of pity. Joelyn commented to me as we left, “That was pretty scary.”  I agreed.  By the time we got home, my primary doctor called Joelyn (not me) and said I needed to get to the emergency room of Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee because I had a tumor in my skull and I needed it removed.

We immediately went to the hospital where the first person to talk with us about my condition must have been a student. She quickly announced to Joelyn, my son Andy and his wife, Melanie, my daughter, Amy, my sister Mary and me that it looked like I had an “aggressive tumor.”  She then turned to my family posse (fortunately I didn’t hear this part) and said: “He may not have long to live. Does he have power of attorney in place, etc.”  When the family challenged her comments, she backed down a bit and said she’d talk to her boss about this diagnosis.  She came back shortly and told us that her boss indicated it was not an aggressive tumor and that the neurosurgical team should be able to remove the tumor successfully.

Oh my, on a roller coaster from the minute we got there.  They moved me to the neurology ICU and began feeding me anti-swelling steroids to shrink the swelling of the brain to make the surgery easier and safer. By the end of that Friday, several other staff from the ICU talked with me and showed me pictures from the MRI. The feedback went from an “aggressive, life-threatening tumor to a benign tumor attached to the skull and not invading the brain."  What a relief for all of us.

Now the best diagnosis came: I had a meningioma as I mentioned above. Those of you who know me personally will not be surprised that when I returned home from the hospital after my craniotomy, I immediately started studying brain tumors. One of the physician assistants gave me a book titled About Brain Tumors.  Doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but it was highly instructive. So I want to share with you just a little of what I learned.

Indeed, I had a Grade I Meningioma. This tumor forms on the skull of the brain. It is normally a very slow growing mass usually self-contained.  Its cells look almost like normal cells.  Many people who have this condition never have surgery to remove it because it doesn’t interfere with the brain. When it does interfere with the brain through compression rather than invasion, then some strange things can start happening in the mind and body.

“Frontal Tumors cause a lack of interest in an individual’s surroundings, as well as mood swings and changes in ethical standards.  Problem solving may become difficult because of a lack of concentration.  Behavior and personality changes also may occur and     short-term memory (memory of recent events) may diminish. When the memory cannot ‘remember’ words, it may be difficult to express thoughts in words or writing. The frontal lobe also plans and begins the sequences of movement” (ref: About Brain Tumors).

Wow. I had almost every one of those effects, except for the “changes in ethical standards.” More instruction on brain tumors: There are two kinds of brain tumors, primary and metastatic tumors. They can be benign or malignant.  There are four grades of tumors, I through IV, indicating their degree of malignancy, I being the most benign and self-contained, while IV is the most aggressive and can spread quickly to other parts of the brain. A malignant brain tumor is sometimes called “brain cancer.”

Primary brain tumors usually remain in the brain and spine and do not spread to other parts of the body.  The second type of brain tumor, called Metastatic Brain Tumor, begins in other parts of the body and then travels to the brain forming metastatic brain tumors. So where primary brain tumors usually form and remain in the skull, metastatic brain tumors begin in other parts of the body (e.g. lungs, bones, throat, etc.) and enter the brain where they can play more havoc on the system.

Luckily for me I had a Grade I, primary brain tumor, not brain cancer. The only treatment I needed (and I say “only” with gravity) was the craniotomy where Dr. Wade Mueller cut and sawed open my skull and oh so gently removed the two inch meningioma from my skull. As far as the post-MRI showed, he extracted the whole tumor, it was non-cancerous, and I need no further treatment. The swelling of the brain was largely reduced within a day of the surgery and the brain migrated back to its normal left hemisphere place.

Briefly, let me tell you what’s happened to me in the past month of recuperation and renewal.  I have been transformed from the slowly debilitated shell of an old man to my renewed former self.  I have new energy, an interest in life, the people around me, and the Earth.  I have ditched the depression that, like gravity, had pushed me down and am experiencing again the joy of everything (except politics).  I’ve become an organizing fool, cleaning my desk, arranging my files and cleaning up my books and magazines.  My verbal communication has gotten stronger and I am again interested in writing.  My heart-mind has lit up and turned me toward my interest and involvement in environmental affairs.  In other words, I’m back!

My reaction to this re-birth is gratitude.  On the last day I saw my neurosurgeon, Dr. Wade Mueller, at the hospital, I shook his hand and said: "I want to thank you for saving my life.”  He thanked me for that and said: “I don’t know if I saved your life.  You were a very good patient who helped save your own life.”  I thought about that and realized, yes, I was grateful to myself for being physically and mentally active most of my life.  For years I have exercised at a gym, walked daily with my dogs and wife, generally tried to eat healthily, never smoked, and so on.  Now, going into serious brain surgery fairly fit, no doubt, helped me survive and recover well. I guess “self-gratitude” is appropriate.  

Not only did Dr. Mueller, his staff, and me “save my life.”  My wife, Joelyn, saved my life as well.  She’s the one who pushed me to return to my primary physician and, along with her, ask for an MRI to see what might be going on in my head.  Now, I reflect on just how frequently Joelyn has “saved my life.”  Married almost 42 years, she has infused my being with richer life by her constant love and care.  My adult children, Andy and Amy have “ saved my life” often by their positive and loving attitudes toward me--the calls they made, the interest they have shown, the invitation to join them at a Wisconsin Badger football game or a breakfast out, all have infused new life into me.  Saving my life, I realize, means infusing it with their life and propelling growth in my living.

Further, all the people I know who heard of this brain event and contacted me also helped “save my life.” The flood of caring responses I received I wrapped around myself like an envelop protecting me from any bad.  They were small responses, an email, text message, phone call, but they enhanced my strength and helped heal the trauma I was going through.

Even though I am of the older generation of human kind at this point, I can still be transformed and brought to new life.  And that, my dear friends, is exactly what has happened.  This person, Dale, Dad, Papa, is being transformed again, growing in life and not diminishing.  The transformation has mostly to do with regaining fresh eyes, seeing how I am “saved” daily by others, the Earth, and myself.  Not just the big events, like brain surgery, are saving actions.  But all kinds of daily events are indeed life-saving and life-growing.

Each day now, I notice how people and the Earth are saving, infusing me with new life.  When the sun shines I become more alive. Cold weather jars me into walking faster with my dogs. The plants, fish, and animals fill me with nutrients making me healthy. Water literally keeps me alive. Oxygen too. All these Earth gifts “save my life.”

In each of our lives there are life-saving events every day caressing us, informing us, cajoling us, infusing us with more life and energy. My encouragement to you is to notice when and how other people, creatures of the Earth, soil, plants, weather, sun and rain, water, air, and beaches, all infuse us with living energy.  And be consciously grateful for them “saving your life.”  As I try to become more conscious of the little salvations I receive, I find myself pivoting to try harder to “save your life” (by writing this piece to you, for example).  I also am trying harder to save the life of animals of the land, fish, and all sea creatures, the water they swim in and we drink, the land and air from pollutants like nitrogen and CO2.  I want to rededicate myself to save the living Earth for the next seven generations following us, removing the tumors of climate change, the quality of water, the heavy pollution absorbed in our atmosphere.  I encourage you too to pivot with me after the many real ways I have been saved these past six weeks and continue to consciously “save”, infuse with life-energy those you know and love along with saving the Earth. 

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