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Part VI

Allow me to introduce my neurosurgeon.  And talk about the various treatment “options” I faced.  I find it amusing that people would ask/comment that I had had “elective” brain surgery, but ask you’ll see, I found I had no choice but to treat my AVM.

Perhaps I should back-track and talk about how we arrived at brain surgery as The Choice.  All the websites and the research I’d done on AVMs thus far yielded 3 options on AVM treatment: embolization, radiation, or microsurgery.  Because each AVM is unique in size, location, and involvement of blood vessels, and because each patient is different in age, ability, and health status, no two AVMs can be approached in the same manner.  Some are completely inoperable, while others are relatively easily corrected with little side effects.  It all depends.  That’s where Dr. Zager came in.  Dr. Hart could diagnose me, and even tell me the options that were widely available, but it was Dr. Zager’s expertise that allowed him to look at my MRA and MRI scans and say I needed brain surgery.  He also said that embolization would be used in conjunction with the craniotomy. 

What I love about Dr. Zager is that while he is truly a skilled and great surgeon (look at me, alive, typing, working, etc!), he was also completely honest.  He said that because surgery was his specialty, he looked at the AVM from a surgeon’s standpoint, and also the approach of HUP.  He said quite candidly that if I’d gone to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, or Jefferson University Hospital, they would likely recommend radiation, aka stereotacticradiosurgery, aka Gamma knife, aka Cyberknife, because that’s their specialty.

And if I hadn’t trusted my surgeon, I had already read all about radiosurgery, and read enough to know it wasn’t what I wanted.  Not that I wanted a craniotomy, of course.  In radiosurgery, they aim a narrow beam of radiation at the targeted trouble spot (the AVM).  They do this over a period of time, depending on, of course, all the variables mentioned above, and hopefully, over the next few years, the blood vessels in question close up and the AVM disappears.  In order to be so precise with the radiation beam, they screw a metal frame into the head, ‘cause you’ve got to hold still even more than for an MRI, or they might zap the wrong blood vessels. 

The downsides to radiation are that results might not show up for several years; and meanwhile they’re zapping healthy brain on the way into the AVM.  Ouch.  Radiation has long-lasting effects.  That’s why a few treatments can close off an AVM over several years.  Unfortunately, any side effects or deficits resulting from the radiation may also persist for several years, and it’s not unheard of for people to develop new symptoms (from the radiation, not from the AVM itself) years after their last treatments.  Just ask a cancer survivors who has gone through radiation.  It changes the structure of the cells permanently, and can have chronic effects. 

Next up for consideration is embolization.  Essentially, the procedure involves threading a teeny catheter up through a groin blood vessel and into the brain (or wherever the AVM is), and inject a substance to close off the blood vessel where the AVM is, mimicking an embolism, as might occur during a stroke.  Sometimes they inject glue, or a plastic substance; other times they use coils to shut off blood flow.  As the blood vessels are shut off, depriving the AVM of its blood supply, it becomes smaller or goes away.  In my case, Dr. Zager wanted to do an embolization first, to shrink my AVM, which would then make it easier for him to do brain surgery.

Brain surgery, aka craniotomy, is exactly what you think it is.  Of course, no one could really prepare me for what the side effects and or consequences could be.  Just as each AVM is unique, so is each surgery, and each subsequent recovery.  Due to the size and location of my AVM, Dr. Zager could try to predict where I might have deficits, but it was little more than a (highly) educated guess.  My AVM lived its happy tangled life in my right brain, near the area of the motor strip controlling my tongue and face.  Therefore, surgery would mostly likely affect gross motor control in the left half of my body, maybe some balance issues, or more.  He did assure me that since the left brain is the hemisphere controlling language abilities, that I would not get aphasia; more likely it would be dysarthria, a speech impairment characterized by slushy articulation because the muscles or nerves of the speech-producing body parts aren’t as strong or able to produce the quick movements we usually need for speech.  That was a huge relief, actually.  Having studied Broca’s and Wernicke’s aphasia in my psycholinguistics and psychology classes, I knew I needed none of that.

Broca’s and Wernicke’s are so-named for the physicians who discovered people with these odd deficits.  In the case of Broca’s, Dr. Paul Pierre Broca discovered similar impairments in two patients who had lesions to the same part of the brain, specifically the  posterior inferior frontal gyrus of the left hemisphere of the brain.  Neither patient had fluent expressive speech, but both retained the ability to understand virtually anything said to them.  Of course, back in the 19th century one had to wait until autopsy to find out which part of the brain had been eaten away by syphilis or shattered by a railroad spike, but when he compared the two brains post-mortem, he discovered this region, and assigned the ability of fluent speech to it. 

Wernicke’s area, in the posterior part of the superior temporal gyrus of the left hemisphere, was discovered to be responsible for understanding speech, also by studying patients who presented with similar symptoms and deficits.  This is called fluent aphasia, because a person retains the ability to speak fluently, but the speech may be filled with jargon or just not make any sense.  For example, “I went to the breakfast, but it was too kleton for me to go diving.”  People also have tremendous deficits in the comprehension of speech. 

Having too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing, when one knows about aphasia and acquired language impairment.  I was very grateful my AVM was in my right hemisphere!

The fourth option, which was discussed but not considered in my case, was doing nothing, or “watching and waiting”.  For people with very small AVMs which are not causing any problems and not appearing to grow, this may be a good option.  For people with large, inoperable AVMs, or AVMs which involve major blood vessels, for whom surgical intervention would certainly endanger their lives, watching-and-waiting may be the only option.  In my case, we had evidence from my case history that my AVM was making trouble (causing tongue seizures), and had grown (the seizures were now taking part of my face, too).  So surgery with embolization was chosen.

I was given the opportunity to choose my own surgery date.  Because my AVM had not bled yet, and I was on medication to control the seizures, I was not in any imminent danger of a bleed.  Over time, the risk of a bleed increases, about 2% a year, but waiting a few months was not going to change my risks in any drastic way.  Of course, now that I knew what was inside my head, and what it was capable of, I felt like I was a walking time bomb.  I needed to have the AVM taken care of, so I chose June 21, 2004, giving myself a week to tie up loose ends after the school year ended, and the whole summer to recover.  All the logistics were figured out.  I needed no more tests until the actual surgery, so all I had to do was sit back, relax, and prepare myself emotionally for the reality of brain surgery.

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Part V — Meds and Doctors

Now it may have seemed as if I was a very strong person, a person capable of understanding her diagnosis in a calm and rational manner. A person capable of impressing her neurologist with her understanding of what an AVM was. On the surface, that was me exactly. But given the path that stretched out before me, I fell apart. It was one thing to sit in an office with a medical professional learning and rationalizing and getting answers to 8 years of questions. It was entirely a different matter altogether to be leaving the hospital’s campus alone with a ‘script in hand with the name of a neurosurgeon and instructions to go get a consultation from him.

I stopped at a pay phone just inside the hospital’s ambulance bay and called Mr. Apron at work. In those days he worked 8am-4pm at a non-profit an hour’s drive away. On that day, however, he was downtown at some conference, learning about new products and services he would soon care less about when his position was eliminated due to his narcissistic boss who was sore he didn’t make mindless small-talk at the office. Chances are that I had taken an afternoon appointment at Dr. Hart’s, and Mr. Apron was still downtown. As I reached him, he excused himself from the exhibit hall to take my call, and, upon hearing how upset I was, left immediately for home. I explained the whole anatomy of the AVM, the prognosis, the next step, having to call the neurosurgeon, and the weight of it all falling squarely on my lap. I somehow managed to drive the 2 miles home; Mr. Apron joined me shortly, and we fell to tears holding each other. He still tells me today how filled with regret he is he did not come to that appointment. He’d been to every other appointment, watching as I stalwartly refused to show Dr. Hart with my hand how my tongue looked during a spasm. And he vowed never to miss such an important appointment again. True to his word, he’s been there ever since, from the neurosurgeon’s consult to the waiting room to the recovery. Every step of the way.

Dr. Hart delivered another pronouncement that day. I would have to be on medication. Hated, dreaded medication that would keep my tongue from doing flip-flops in my mouth. It was never those actual events that scared me so much as what they meant in an underlying sense. This is true of seizures in a general sense, too.  It’s not usually the seizure itelf which causes harm, but the potential of what could happen during a seizure that has docs worried, such as hitting one’s head on a counter, slipping in the bathroom, or losing control of a car.   In that way, I was very lucky; Dr. Hart didn’t turn me into the DMV. Many people who have seizure disorders have their driver’s licenses stripped from them for a period of time until they’re seizure free, anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, depending on the state. Since my seizures were focal in nature, and I never lost control of my driving faculties (imagine arm spasms while driving, or leg seizures) or my consciousness, he let me keep on driving. But the drugs made me very unhappy. I was on Carbatrol, an extended-release version of Tegretol, a very old anti-convulsant medication, which I had to take twice a day. It’s been around in some form or another for over 30 years. The joy of seizure meds is that they’re supposed to be in the body at very consistent levels all the time, which meant I had to take them exactly every 12 hours and have monthly blood tests to check my levels.

Neurologists sometimes expend much effort trialing different meds, experimenting with different levels. I was fortunate to be on such a low-dose of the drug, but I still noticed side effects. For one, Carbatrol interacted with my birth control pills, which I had been on since junior year of college due to incapacitating cramps and other female troubles which would take me out of class each month and confine me to my bed, crying and writhing in pain and clutching a heating pad. So not only did I have to give up grapefruit (Yes, Carbatrol is one of those weird drugs), but I also had to forgo my precious, sanity-saving birth control pills. Not to mention the inconvenience of having to use condoms, but we don’t need to go there. You understand how much that sucks, not to be able to use a method of birth control that was a wonder drug in so many ways.

Mr. Apron felt that pain acutely, too, and not just each month as he heated up my heating pad. Seizure meds are evil things. They’re maintenance drugs for a chronic condition, and most people with seizure disorders have to take them indefinitely. That means even if they undergo surgery and have the underlying epilepsy-causing brain matter resected, they may still be on anti-convulsants forever. This is because, as Dr. Hart explained, once the brain has learned to seize, it can never go back to not knowing how to seize. In other words, the risk of having another seizure, no matter how long it’s been since the last, will always be there.

To decrease my risks, Dr. Hart told me to watch out for my triggers. I’m not sure if other people have seizure triggers like mine, but I had noticed trends in the past 8 years, circumstances under which I knew I was at higher risk for a tongue spasm. One of these was being thirsty or dehydrated. Even though I usually brought a juice box to school with my lunch, I was just never one of those juice-box-drinking kids, especially with the 23 minute lunch periods we had in high school! In college, I started trying to remember to carry a water bottle and drinking throughout the day. But as my mother used to say as she’d pack me onto an airplane, unaccompanied, “Remember, what goes in one end must come out another.” Thanks, mom. I know where the airplane toilet is, and I know when my bladder is full. So in addition to remembering to take my water bottle each day, I had to make sure I was near a bathroom, not only to hide the inevitable tongue spasms, but also to drain the copious amounts of liquid from my body I was drinking to stave off those same spasms.

Other triggers he said were common to most people who have seizures include skipping meals, being sleep-deprived, and using alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes and other such staples of college-age life. “You’ll have to live the goody-two-shoes life,” he said. And I have. I have turned down every single alcoholic drink offered to me since that moment, except for at my own wedding, when I had six sips of champagne. I have cut back my caffeine to the point where I only partake in Excedrin when I have a headache (roughly the equivalent of 8oz coffee’s worth of caffeine) and when there’s no caffeine-free soda to be had (which explains my current addiction to Caffeine-Free Diet Coke). On those wicked hot summer days, I miss nursing an ice cold Frappucino, even if they do cost nearly $4. I hated explaining my sobriety to people, but at least I never liked coffee in the first place. I was never a big drinker, but from time to time, I’d like to be able to have a drink when the situation feels right, rather than stick out like a social pariah with my Diet Coke (sans caffeine, of course).

In addition to the lifestyle changes, there were the side effects from the medication itself. Keep in mind that I was on 300 mg/day, 200mg in the morning, and 100mg in the evening, a very low dose, compared to some people who are taking 1200mg – 2000mg to control their epilepsy, or they’e on various cocktails designed to reap the maximum benefits of one drug while minimizing the unpleasant side effects of them all. Still, I noticed side-effects that made me very resentful of the drugs controlling my life. I had a transient dizziness, most keenly felt when making sudden changes in altitude, like standing up from crouching, which is not very far to go when you’re only 5′ tall. I also noticed it when turning my head rapidly, as if my skull moved but left my brain behind momentarily. By far more troubling was the fogginess I felt in my brain. I had trouble recalling specific words, having the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon all too often. My thoughts seemed to slow down. I realize I was very fortunate those are the only side effects I had at this stage, as many people are so heavily medicated as to feel sedated, constantly walk into things, and vomit regularly.

Still, I resented taking the pills and the clean lifestyle they forced me into. My pharmacy never carried them when I needed them, resulting in calls to other pharmacies in the area for those inevitably last-minute refills. I always quaked with apprehension entering the drug store each month, anticipating they’d be out of my pills yet again, and I’d start having tongue spasms all over again without them. They did stop my seizures, though. I had my last seizure in November of 2003, during the night. Mr. Apron lay beside me, sensing something was wrong. I had been asleep, and so had he, so I didn’t have time for my customary warning. I clenched my tongue in my teeth, futilely trying to get it to stop convulsing. This of course, resulting in horrible slurping noises as the saliva built up in my mouth. Mr. Apron, panicking, tried to sit up in bed to see what was wrong. I whipped my arm across his chest, pinning him to the sheets, begging him with my gesture to just stay put. He did, and when it ended, he confided his fear to me. I apologized for my reaction, but clung to him, willing whatever it was to just go away. Of course, that didn’t just happen on its own.

The name given to me by Dr. Hart was that of a neurosurgeon just down the street, a fine surgeon I’m sure, but friends and family begged me to find someone else. Somehow a chain of referrals bounced around the Delaware Valley, up to Providence, where my family lived, and even to Upstate New York, where I grew up and my family kept in touch with a neurosurgeon there. The goal now was to get second, third, twelfth opinions, to see all my options. My parents were saying that I could go up to Boston if I wanted/needed to, and have it taken care of at Mass General Hospital. The name I already had was of a man from Bryn Mawr Hospital, a smallish community hospital. We kept asking around. Somehow, two different sources independently returned to us with the same name. My mother-in-law extended her contacts and these sources both said, “Dr. Eric Zager”. He was a vascular neurosurgeon at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Big guns. And. AND. AND he was in network. I called for an appointment.

Robin, his inestimable secretary, set me up with an appointment, but told me I had to bring all my scans and records in myself, since I was not yet their patient and they had no rights to my health information under HIPAA. Huh? I obtained the kosher referral from Dr. Lander and set off downtown with a huge folder containing my MRIs, MRAs, and everything else billowing in the wind. This time, Mr. Apron came. He never missed another important appointment. Or an unimportant one, for that matter.

Dr. Zager explained everything as Dr. Hart had done, and went over my options. First, he told me I was very fortunate to have had any symptoms of the AVM at all. Most people never even know they have something so sinister lurking in their brains until they’re in their 40s or 50s and have a bleed. And maybe die. The other great part about being so young was that while my chances of having a bleed in my 20s were low, they’d increase roughly 2% a year. Recovery in one’s 20s from planned brain surgery is much quicker than in middle age, not only because a 23-year-old body is more spry and can heal faster in general, but because a 23-year-old brain is still plastic enough to learn new neural pathways and recover function more completely. I was old enough that my brain had developed basically adult functioning, but young enough that I’d be more able to recover those skills. I have since learned in speech pathology coursework that the 20s are really an ideal time to have trauma to one’s brain, if there is such a time. When one is a child, younger than five, mature language skills have not even cemented yet, and with brain injury, there’s a chance a child wouldn’t be able to learn further; whereas an adult can relearn more easily when the neural pathways have already been established.

I mention brain injury for an important reason. While with any surgery (stop me if you’ve heard this one) there is a risk of infection or complications, with brain surgery this issue is compounded. The body has gone to elaborate lengths to keep the brain isolated in in its little skull bubble. There are 3 protective coverings — meninges — even before the skull: the arachnoid mater, the pia mater, and the dura mater. Even inside the brain, there is a blood-brain barrier which prevents most infections and even medications from entering the brain via the blood vessels. Simply put, the brain wants no intruders, from the inside or the outside. As Frank Vertosick mentions in his book, “When the Air Hits Your Brain,” the number one rule for cracking open any noggin is, “You ain’t never the same when the air hits your brain”. Another of his axioms: “The only minor operation is one that someone else is doing.” Any sort of intervention when it involves the brain is a daunting and scary prospect, even when you put your brain in the capable hands of Dr. Zager.