Months that Lasted Years

Two months ago, I knelt at the side of Interstate 95, wondering if the girl I love was going to die in my arms. In eight days, she is going to walk down the aisle and become my wife.

I met Elyssa in law school. Her red hair and big smile brought energy to something as dull as income tax class. We started dating soon after exams and were engaged to be married about a year and a half later. She is why terms like “love of my life” and “soulmate” exist.

Fear and Waiting

As our last pre-wedding trip, Elyssa and I registered to run the Enchanted 10K at Disney’s Princess Marathon week. Our training had slacked some in the winter months, but we were ready and excited to visit Mickey and to run the race. We left Raleigh after work on Thursday, February 20th, and drove to Santee, SC to spend the night.

On Friday, we woke up early, prepared a few waffles in the hotel waffle-iron, and got back on the road. The first few hours were uneventful. We chatted about recent events in our lives, we sang to the radio, and we planned what we were going to do when we finally made it to Orlando. We never even made it to Georgia.

As we were approaching the bridge that divides South Carolina from Georgia, Elyssa had a seizure. Though, looking back, the seizure probably only lasted a total of thirty seconds, it felt as though ages went by. The images of my fiancé shaking will forever inhabit my nightmares.

The rest of the day was a blur. It consisted of CAT Scans, MRIs, and blood tests. It involved eight hours in the emergency room, and a six-hour drive back to Raleigh. Two words, however, stood out: brain tumor. Elyssa, almost surely, had a brain tumor.

The weekend was brutal. Not knowing how we were going to deal with the tumor felt even worse than knowing the tumor existed. Thankfully, through the efforts of some of our friends, we ended up meeting with the neurosurgeon on Tuesday, only four days after her seizure. The neurosurgeon confirmed what the ER doctor had said: brain tumor. On his recommendation, we decided that we wanted the whole tumor removed as soon as possible. Surgery was scheduled for the following Monday.

We had five days to wait before the surgery. Since we had no idea how to spend that time, we tried to approximate some level of normalcy. We went to dinners, we had friends come visit, and we tried to spend as much time together as possible. Elyssa went to bed earlier than normal, since she couldn’t worry when she was asleep. I went to bed later than normal, since I didn’t want to endure those few moments before I fell asleep, time when I would actually have to be alone with my thoughts.

Elyssa was particularly strong during those five days. She proactively cut off her hair so she could donate it to Locks of Love, instead of having it simply left on the operating room floor. She built a bear, fully outfitted in scrubs, to take with her into surgery. She listed cool things she wanted to say when she first woke up from surgery. She promised me that she was going to be okay and that she was going to be there in eight weeks to marry me. I told her that I would hold her to that.

Surgery

The morning of Elyssa’s surgery was surreal. Her family had arrived the previous day, and we all met at hospital that morning. We had been told on Friday that Elyssa’s surgery would be at 9 a.m., but when we arrived on Monday morning it had already been pushed to 11:30 a.m. Around 11 a.m., one of the doctors told us that there was a chance Elyssa would not be able to have her surgery that day at all. Furthermore, we would have to wait until 1 or 2 p.m. to find out what was going to happen. Elyssa tried to deal with not being able to eat or drink anything for a few more hours. I went to the hospital’s Starbucks to get a snack to hold me over. We both tried to hold back any thoughts of having to return to the hospital on Wednesday.

At about 11:30 a.m., I returned from Starbucks and walked into the waiting room. Elyssa was called into surgery two or three minutes later. They had found an open operating room.

Elyssa and I were taken to a pre-op room while we waited for the doctors and their staff to setup the operating room. We talked to her various doctors and nurses. We discussed the wedding to-do list. Elyssa finally decided that the first thing she wanted to say when she awoke from surgery was “I know Kung Fu, ” and she began repeating it to herself so she would remember it. She was positive and smiling the whole time we were together. I kissed her one more time as they rolled her to the operating room. I could hear her chatting with the doctors as she rolled down the hall. I cried all the way back to the waiting room.

The neurosurgeon had told us that the surgery would take about four hours, but that one of the nurses was going to call me every two hours to let me know how things were going. I got the first call about 90 minutes into the surgery. Things were going well. At the three-and-a-half hour mark, I started looking at my phone for the next call. The call never came. Instead, about four hours and fifteen minutes after Elyssa was rolled back to the operating room, someone came and told us (1) Elyssa was out of surgery, and (2) that was all he knew. He said the doctor would come see us in about forty-five minutes.

The neurosurgeon was pretty much on schedule. He explained that things had gone well with the surgery, and that he believed that they had gotten all of the tumor out. He explained that Elyssa would have some left-side weakness as a result of the surgery, something he had warned us could happen, but that it would go away with time. He said I could see her.

One of the nurses led me to the ICU. I came around the corner to see Elyssa lying there. Her head was wrapped in bandages, an oxygen mask was over her mouth, and her eyes were open.

“Hey babe,” I said. “How you doing?” Elyssa mumbled something in response. “What did you say?” I ask, as I leaned in. “I know kung fu.”

I smiled. I cried. She had it made it through the surgery. She may have looked like a giant Q-Tip, but she had made it.

Recovery

The neurosurgeon may have undersold what “left side weakness” meant. When Elyssa first woke from surgery she could hardly move her left arm or leg. For me, as an observer, it was scary. For her, as the person whose limbs would not respond, it was terrifying.

“Will I be able to walk down the aisle at my wedding?” was the question Elyssa asked every nurse, doctor, and therapist she saw those first few days. Most were positive, if non-committal, while others were less encouraging. Each day, however, brought some positive signs. One day it might be twitching toes, another day it might be the ability to move her left hand as a mirror to mine. The progress felt slow, but it was definitely there.

After a single night in the ICU, and a few days in the neuroscience recovery unit of the hospital, Elyssa was moved to the hospital’s rehab unit. It was a large step-up in comfort, but it also allowed Elyssa to have three hours of therapy a day. The hope, of course, was that this would increase the speed at which her left side recovered.

The first day she met with one of the physical therapists, four days after her surgery, she got out of her wheelchair and started walking with a cane. Things progressed well, if slowly, from there.

When Elyssa was awake, she spent nearly all of her time trying to get her left side to respond to her brain. She would raise her left arm and then work to bring it back down. She would roll her left ankle, or try to move a towel on the floor with her toes while keeping her heel in place. She would work herself until she was exhausted, sleep, and then start working again.

By Tuesday of the next week, one week and one day after her surgery, Elyssa was able to walk on her own. She was progressing so well that when her doctors met that day, they scheduled her discharge for Thursday. She celebrated that news by jogging down the halls.

Back Home

Elyssa was discharged from the hospital’s rehab unit ten days after surgery, on Thursday, March 13. Our first stop was at our local comic book store, and we followed that up with her first meal outside of the hospital in almost two weeks. During those first few days Elyssa was home, fatigue was her biggest limiting factor. She was able to be active mentally or physically for an hour or two, but would then need to rest for three or four hours.

Even without daily physical therapy sessions, Elyssa worked hard to rehabalitiate herself. She lifted 3lb dumbells while on the phone, she practiced balancing on one leg while we made dinner, and she started doing short jogging intervals when we went on walks. At that point, only three weeks removed from her surgery, there was no doubt that Elyssa would be able to walk down the aisle at our wedding.

Of course, Elyssa wanted to do more than just walk. She wanted to get back to where she was before the surgery. We started training daily. Walks, runs, and even classes back at our gym. On Friday, March 29th, a little less than 4 weeks after Elyssa’s surgery, we ran the Tap-N-Run race here in Raleigh. Elyssa jogged more during that race than we had in any of training sessions up to that point. She made it look easy.

Future

Thanks to the hosts of the Mickey Miles Podcast and the folks at runDisney, Elyssa and I are already registered to run the Enchanted 10K at Disney World next year. With the amount of time we have before that race, we should have no problem running it. In fact, I would not be surprised if we decide to try a half-marathon, possibly the Wine & Dine, next year as well.

Lastly, and most importantly, Elyssa and I are getting married on May 3. The last two months left us without much time to worry about whether or not everything is ready for the wedding. At this point, however, neither one of us really cares about the napkins or the song for the cake cutting. We are just focused on experiencing the moment together.