31: The Gift of Life

31: The Gift of Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

The Gift of Life

Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.
~Grandma Moses

As I sat in a clinic room with my dad, the physician’s assistant held a book open to a picture of the brain. Slowly, he explained I had an unidentifiable mass in my brain causing a condition known as hydrocephalus, or “water on the brain.”

This mass appeared to be in the center of my brain and blocking the passageway where fluid should naturally drain. It caused my brain to swell, and, if left untreated, would cause death. For the past eight months, it had caused vomiting, unbearable headaches and enlarged pupils.

I would have to go to Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina, tomorrow morning to see a brain tumor specialist.

The PA walked out, leaving my dad and me alone in the exam room. My initial thought was, “This guy is nuts!” But when I looked at my dad to confirm my impression, he was crying. I had seen my dad cry only twice before—once when my cousin Linda died, and once when he was watching a television show where a soldier from Vietnam was being buried.

The PA re-entered the exam room and handed my dad the manila envelope which contained my CT scans and other important paperwork.

As we walked out through the sliding glass doors, I kept quiet. Dad seemed very upset and was doing everything he could to choke back tears. When we got into his truck, he picked up his cell phone to call my mom.

She wanted to know what on earth we had been doing because the CT scan was only supposed to take thirty minutes and we had been gone for hours. Dad told her the news was not good, but he would tell her everything shortly.

When we got home, I stepped slowly out of the truck and shut the heavy door gently. Dad grabbed the food he had gotten us for dinner and slammed the door on his side.

Inside, Mom was standing by the kitchen table. She hurried over and gave me a big hug. She held me for a minute or more, and I had no idea what to say.

I went to bed convinced an MRI at Duke would prove the PA wrong and I could go back to life the way I remembered it before the headaches. When my alarm sounded the next morning, I yearned to go back to sleep, but I slowly dragged myself out of bed and shut it off. I rifled through my chest of drawers, pulled some clothes out, and put them on.

I trudged down the steps and into the kitchen, where Mom and Dad were already dressed and waiting. The three of us went out to Mom’s van and started the trip to Duke.

As I sat in the backseat, the van seemed to creep along, making the sixty-minute trip seem to last for days. My MRI was scheduled for 7:30 that morning, and I had to be there thirty minutes early to sign in.

When we finally arrived, I was anxious to get it over with. I figured the quicker I had the MRI, the faster they would find nothing was really wrong with me and I could go home.

Unfortunately, things did not quite work out that way. The MRI confirmed that the PA was right. There was a mass in my brain. It was a tumor big enough to cause swelling so severe that the neurologist on call said she had no idea how I was still alive, much less still conscious.

Six hours of brain surgery would be required to remove this tumor. The neurologists debated whether to send me for emergency surgery or wait until the next morning. Finally, after lying on a gur-ney in the emergency room for fourteen hours, they decided I could wait until the next morning.

The smell of bacon woke me the following day. I knew I wasn’t allowed to eat anything before surgery, but my stomach rumbled and I longed for something to eat. A nurse came in and told me that my neurologist had been called into emergency surgery and my surgery would be delayed. Two hours after that, the same nurse came back to tell me that yet another emergency surgery had come in and my neurologist would have to perform that operation before mine.

About lunch time, the shift changed and a different nurse came in and asked if I was ready. Considering that I never had any kind of surgery before, much less brain surgery, I was anything but ready. But I nodded. Several more nurses came in, raised my bed, unlocked it, turned it, and began to wheel me down the hall.

My mom walked along beside me, and I stared up at the ceiling wondering if Dad would make it to the hospital in time. He had gone home the night before to be with my younger brother, and I wanted to see him one last time before I went under.

Minutes before they took me into the operating room, Dad came running through the doors. I hugged both my parents the best I could, and then took a deep breath as the anesthesiologist wheeled me away.

Complications arose during my surgery. My neurologist told my parents the tumor was cancerous and it went deeper into my brain than he felt he could safely go. He didn’t think I would ever wake up again. If I did wake from the surgery, the odds were not good. I would most likely be a vegetable for the rest of my life. For a week or so, it seemed as if initial predictions were going to come true.

When I finally did wake, I could not speak or really move. I could hear things perfectly—everything the doctors said around me, I could hear and I wanted to scream, “No! I’m here!” But I just couldn’t.

The neurologist and other surgeons who performed my operation had no explanation as to why I couldn’t speak, except that “A” and “B” in my brain had not reconnected properly. They even weren’t entirely sure why I was still alive.

I had three more surgeries in the following three and a half weeks, and forty-four radiation treatments over an eight and a half week period.

Slowly, one word at the time, I did gain the ability to talk again. Countless hours of rehab taught me to sit, stand, and walk by myself.

It’s six years later, and I’m now a student at a small southern college. While I do still have scar tissue where my tumor was, my cancer is in remission and I’ve recently decided to major in writing. Perhaps that time of speechlessness taught me the value of words. In fact, having cancer taught me quite a lot. Not the least of which is to be grateful for what I have. If I rush through life, I will miss all of the wonders given back to me.

It was one very important lesson for a sick fourteen-year-old to learn.

~Ashley Young, age 21

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