Last week when I should have been using my daughter’s pre-school time to put together a blog, I was instead recovering in the ER of our local hospital. My husband and I arrived by ambulance at 3:45 AM after I’d suddenly woken up with numb arms, legs and chin, and unable to speak coherently. We all thought I was having a stroke, and the paramedics kept saying, “Don’t worry — you’re within the three hour time limit for [stroke] treatment.” I was terrified for myself, but mostly worried about leaving my kids and having them wake up not understanding where I was. Thank goodness a wonderful neighbor came right over to be with them after my husband called 911. It was very strange, though, to leave everything for others to take care of, including my body and my voice (I was incoherent and unable to speak for myself for almost two hours).
There is a happy ending. Three “seizures”, two ambulance rides, three head scans, and almost ten needle pokes later I have my diagnosis: the relatively benign brain stem (or basilar) migraine. That migraine should once again rear its ugly head in my life is surprising. In the past ten years I’ve had only eight garden-variety migraines, during which I experienced funny zig-zag lights in my visual field, followed by a headache easily alleviated by over-the-counter pain relievers. However, it wasn’t always that way, and my undergraduate and graduate school years were punctuated with searches for treatment for pain that would not go away. The migraines were particularly debilitating when combined with the crazy hours and nerves of a graduate student. Even the 30-pound weight gain that accompanied my cocktail of prophylactic meds was well worth it at the time just so I could be productive. And I wasn’t the only academic I knew regularly nursing a sore head. The insidious thing about migraine is that it’s just a headache, right? Not exactly. Unless one has experienced the throbbing pain and crazy neurological disturbances it’s hard to understand why migraines stop so many temporarily in their tracks. The funny thing about my graduate school headaches is that they stopped almost as soon as I left, and it was a great feeling to say good-bye to the drugs. In my new life as half-time academic, and then later as full-time parent, I thought I’d traded away all the stress that brought on migraines. Why have they suddenly resurfaced again with a vengeance?
Now one week since my first pre-dawn surprise attack, I hold a little beta-blocker pill bottle that might be the key to getting my head under control again. At least that’s what my bleary-eyed husband and I hope. I still find it hard to believe I have to be a migraine patient again. And I’ve been advised to get a bracelet to identify me as a brain stem migraineur since an attack looks like stroke…or epilepsy…or a drunk lady out with the kids.
There are several things I’ve learned from the experiences this past week. First, my children are more resilient than I thought. We’ve been up front about what we’ve learned from the illness, and both children were awake during my second attack. I couldn’t speak to my son clearly enough to explain what was happening, but I remember him nodding quietly as we reassured him. His almost eight-year-old body suddenly looked very mature in his dinosaur footy pajamas as he walked back to bed. I’ve also realized this past week just what great friends and neighbors we have, from the friend who tracked down the lost ambulance and slept on our sofa to be with my son and daughter, to the families who drove our kids to activities and invited them to stay at their homes. And then there’s my husband … what have I learned about him? That he’s a saint! On days when I was too dizzy to get out of bed, he made breakfast and dinner for everyone, helped the kids make their lunches and snacks, and then dug into the laundry pile. What would take me a week to finish he did in a day. Of course, I’m a more zealous sorter and we have different ideas about what goes in the dryer, but this was not a time to be nit-picky! My husband said over and over how much he liked feeling needed, and he put copious amounts of energy in every task he took on. It made me realize that he’s very willing to pitch in—I just make it difficult for him to help out when I insist we do things my way! Maybe this is a small silver lining: sickness is a good time to rein in the control-freak and let others shine too.
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