My head used to be my greatest asset, and back in 2012, I had my life on track because of it. With a medical education and a few years of work experience on my back, I felt that I had options in life. I had even saved up to be able to buy a home.
Then illness caught up with me. And not just any illness, but one of the kinds that I feared the most. Apart from untreatable excruciating pain, losing my head was at the top of my unwanted illnesses list. It thus makes sense in hindsight, but right then and there, it felt ironic to have waited so long before I took my symptoms to a qualified doctor.
Brain cancer turned my life upside down, suddenly with the perspective of the patient. I had been used to being professionally emphatic to patients like me, but then truly felt just how devastating illness could be.
Although a somewhat close call, the doctors were able to remove the cancer and to patch me up. I had been lucky with the specific type of cancer and its location, so apart from severe blood loss and the troubling effects of “water on the brain,” I was cured. “Nothing is damaged,” they said and seemed to expect recovery within weeks.
However, my problems with walking, talking, and thinking persisted for months and years despite my overly eager attempts to rush recovery. I definitely did not look myself for the first few weeks, and close relatives’ first response was outright laughter. But even in the following months, most people’s guess landed somewhere between drunk, drugged, and crazy. Adept at helping others fix their problems, it was also a shock to not have a single thought in response to the question, “What should we do now?” Not fitting either health care workers or other people’s ideas of a physically ill person, I felt somewhat comforted by the fictional characters zombies. But I suppose that I did not fully realize the reality of the remains-trapped-in-a-shell existence before I was referred to as a “that” by a prospective coworker.
This state was thus not at all a fulfillment of any dream. Perhaps apart from being alive, not in pain, and enjoying very spicy and very sweet food. A walking aid is not exactly a favorite accessory for a 33-year-old person either. I am not religious and therefore engaged my remaining faculties in doing whatever it takes to get better. The what’s and why’s were both simple and complicated simultaneously, so without a clear target, this involved daily exercise for the body, face, mind, voice, eating healthy, and some meditation. Just in case. Being my own head, I had the unique opportunity to be strict about my time-consuming, rather undocumented regime.
Happily, the combination of efforts and time worked. And I then introduced a job to ensure further rehabilitation. This well assisted by the fact that I earlier had secured funding to go with a position. It turned out, however, that most people did not understand my situation. And that they perceived me as odd rather than as someone recovering from illness.
A bit bitter, I thus kept at it. And although less consistent this time, over time, the various exercises performed their modern-day magic. With this, I am now proud to finally have an appearance and a voice that fits people´s idea of normal. The only thing about me that might not be quite normal is my strong wish to use my screwed-back-on-again head for a positive impact. Hence this article.
However bad, this experience has really pushed my better self forward to the extent that probably would not have occurred otherwise. I am now a strong believer in the miracle-like effects of simple means like exercise and nutrition. I will be forever humbled in the face of symptom-scenarios that do not fit established frameworks. Others in similarly desperate situations that I found myself in might not be as resourceful and strong-willed, but I hope that sharing my story will inspire understanding and hope.
Anne Helene Brandt is a physician.
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