Surviving a Brain Hemorrhage: An Excerpt from “I’m Never Ill”

I awoke from a coma on Good Friday 2009. I’d love to say that I arose on Easter Sunday, but I’d be lying. I knew exactly why I was there. I remembered the events leading up to eventually slipping into unconsciousness; the pain in my head during the very early hours of the morning, the journey to the hospital, my girlfriend Sarah coming to visit me there with the news that her divorce had just become final and the later news that I’d suffered a small brain hemorrhage, but that there was nothing to worry about. We call the 8th April our divorci-versary/brain-iversary.  We joke that I’d tried to escape by slipping into a coma, but when I woke up a few days later she was still there!

Although the hemorrhage was small, the blood that escaped into the fluid around my brain clotted, blocking the channel at the base of the skull where the fluid drains into the spine. This caused the build-up of pressure in my head, known as hydrocephalus. It was this that sent me into a coma. I was then rushed to a neighbouring hospital where they drilled a hole in my head to drain the fluid.
“Will he be brain-damaged?” Sarah asked the doctor?
“Let’s just see if he makes it through the night,” was the reply.A small blister-like aneurysm was the cause of the bleed. Without further treatment, I was now a ticking time bomb. Aneurysms are usually treated by either clipping them from the outside after first removing a piece of skull (a craniotomy), or by blocking them from the inside by inserting platinum coils into them, via a catheter through the femoral artery in the groin. However, my aneurysm was too small for either of these methods, so the doctors decided to block the blood flow to the vulnerable area with a balloon, using the catheter method. I was awake during the operation, which had to be abandoned when the balloon pressed against a nerve, causing excruciating pain and complete double vision. Two days later, they tried a different method, blocking the area by strategically placing nine or ten platinum coils (I forgot to ask how many they’d settled for afterwards) into the vascular system in my head. This was successful.Although at this point we had separate homes, I spent my recuperation at Sarah’s house and never really moved back out. I spent much of my recovery time playing my classical guitar. During this period I composed a piece of music that Sarah really liked. She would ask me to play it over and over again. I never found a title for it, but it became “our” piece of music. I had no significant disabilities other than the fact that my memory was not what it used to be in the early stages of recovery. I’m not sure whether or not it has returned back to normal because it’s impossible to quantify, but it functions well enough now.

Against all odds, I returned to work just three months after my brain hemorrhage. A year later I proposed to Sarah. To set the tone for the marriage, she said, “Yes – but there are terms and conditions!” When I asked what the conditions were, she said that she would only marry me if she could walk down the aisle to our piece of music that I’d composed during my recuperation. On the 9th April 2011 (the day after our second brain-iversary/divorci-versary) we tied the knot, after I’d dutifully recorded our piece of music for her to walk down the aisle to meet me.
Towards the end of 2012, I began writing a book about my experiences. In March 2013, Sarah and I moved to our dream house in an idyllic rural location in Wales, teeming with wildlife and close to some lovely countryside walks. Things couldn’t really have turned out much better. However, things could become worse…

Three months later, Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I sometimes tell her that she did it as a response to my brain hemorrhage. She had always joked that when we first met, suffering a brain hemorrhage wasn’t in the contract. I certainly don’t remember breast cancer, a lumpectomy, removal of the lymph nodes under the left arm, six doses of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiotherapy being a part of any contract either! The whole cancer journey from diagnosis to finishing the treatment took around eight months, but the recovery from the chemotherapy took much longer. We spoke openly about the cancer, even nicknaming the lump “Clarence”! We encouraged people to talk to us about it, and we were proud to announce to everyone that Clarence was sent packing with a one-way ticket to an unknown destination.
People are often surprised, and sometimes even shocked by our flippant, dismissive attitude towards such grave issues. But it’s how we deal with it. We have now beaten our illnesses and turned our lives around. They are actually among the best things ever to have happened to us, forcing us to change our outlooks and to live more for the “here and now”. Whenever I tell people our story, I’m quick to assert the fact that we are fine now and that there is no need for sympathetic eyes or concern. All is well.

But here is the important bit. My brain hemorrhage survival with no significant disabilities was nothing more than sheer luck. However, Sarah’s triumph over cancer was not. As soon as she found the lump she went straight to the doctor. The removal of the lump was done within two weeks, and with “clear margins”, indicating that they were satisfied that there was no more cancer in the breast. After further investigation, they found a microscopic trace of cancer in the lymph node closest to the breast. This indicated that it had gone no further than this point. Effectively, Sarah’s cancer had walked down the garden path and was in the process of opening the gate. If she had not sought medical advice immediately, it would have opened the gate and begun walking down the main road and into whichever side roads it chose.

Six months after Sarah’s treatment ended, in the summer of 2014, we embarked on the trip of a lifetime. We flew from London to Chicago and then drove to Los Angeles along Route 66. It was more than a holiday. It was a complete adventure that had us absorbed from beginning to end. Sarah has just one heartthrob (apart from me, of course) – Pierce Brosnan. Coincidentally, on the last day of the journey while walking along Hollywood Boulevard, he turned up at the same place for the premier of his movie, November Man. We both stood within two metres from him while he was signing autographs. Bizarrely, during our three-week journey, Sarah told me that it was worth having cancer for! That is a colossal statement, but one that needs to be understood in context. It wasn’t just about Cancer v Route 66. It was about the way our attitudes towards life have changed as a result of our illnesses. We are two of the luckiest people alive, and this has made us appreciate everything that we have, which, by default, makes us happier people. Not only that, with all the platinum inside it, the scrap value of my head is worth more than the actual value of both of our cars together – enough to pay for my funeral and a damned good knees up for everyone who attends.
After our road trip across the USA, we decided to continue in the same vein. We began taking lindy hop and swing dancing classes. We go dancing two or three times per week, and in December 2015 we celebrated Sarah’s 50th birthday with a spectacular dancing party.

​-Mark D. Pritchard (Guest Post)  – ​ 

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