Actually the anniversary of the operation that saved by life went uncelebrated. I was among the treetops on the “survivor-like adventure course” at the Wacky Rollers Adventure Park near Roseau, Dominica. It did not occur to me that morning that twenty years earlier I was in Forsyth Memorial Hospital in Winston-Salem a few hours away from significant surgery. I have never written about that survivor-like adventure in detail. And as the Blog Police have given me a verbal warning about my lack of recent posts, here is the story - in three parts.
Throughout 1988 I had been having headaches. Test after test, one specialists after another, and no cause could be found. It was not a sinus infection, not allergies. The headaches were not stress-related. Even a CAT scan showed nothing that would explain my headaches. The headaches were unpleasant, but not debilitating. I carried on. The pain would come and go, focused in my forehead and sinus area. But it was only that fall after my vision started to change, and my daughter noticed that my left pupil was larger than my right, that the pieces of the puzzle started to come together.
I made an appointment with my optometrist. He looked into my eyes and immediately - within an hour - had me examined by a buddy of his across town, an ophthalmologist. Conclusion: my eyes were fine. Whatever was causing my vision issues lay elsewhere. He contacted my GP, Dr. Deekens, who made an appointment in Winston-Salem with “the best neurologist he knew.” A week later the neurologist, Dr. Smith, listen to my story, asked a bunch of questions, told me, “I only do heads but I do them well,” and sent me down the street to a lab for an MRI. He said by the time I went home that night we were going to know what was causing my headaches. Confident, if a bit cocky. UVa. I liked that.
The MRI was cool. I was the last patient that day and after the images were taken the technician let me into the control room to watch the monitor as the equipment processed cross-sections of a brain, my brain. After a while he handed me a manilla envelope with the MRI film and I returned to the office of the neurologist. By this time it was dark, all his office staff had left. It was just me, him, and the film. We went to a light board; he hung the sheets at the top and switched on the light, just like on TV medical shows. Quiet for a couple of minutes, he then pointed out a small dark shadow behind my left eye. “A growth,” he said, “putting pressure on the optic nerve.” He allowed that it just did not show up as well on the CAT scan. I asked if another word for such a growth was cancer. He said, "Well, yes. But most growths in that area I have seen have been benign." He told me it probably needed to come out and he would make an appointment for me to see a neurosurgeon; they would let me know. It was a long drive home.
After Thanksgiving the neurosurgeon, Dr. Brown, saw me. After a quick evaluation he scheduled me to be admitted into the local hospital after the holidays, Tuesday, January 3, 1989. He said they would run some tests that day and the next day he would probably cut a small hole in the side of my head about the size of a silver dollar and removed the tumor. He advised that my left eye might be affected, that is I might not be able to use it for vision again. As if to reassure me, he said it was a very normal procedure, that he usually opened up two skulls each morning before lunch. I watched him write cancer on the admissions paperwork that required my signature. It all seemed unreal. He seemed a no-nonsense guy that Dr. Brown. I rather liked that too.
Christmas was subdued. The thought that I might lose the vision in one eye bothered me as much as anything. In my early 40’s, I still played basketball regularly. Having no depth perception could not help my jump shot. Golf could become even more a challenge as well. New Year's Day was warm enough so I hit the outdoor court for maybe the last time with two good eyes. I played with a mad intensity for over an hour, making damn sure I made my last few jump shots.