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A Brain Tumor Journey, Part II: Bad Signs, Strong Emotions, and the Blur of the ICU

Published on April 19, 2017 in In the Community

Guest Author: Sarah Vannatta

What follows is the second chapter of a brain tumor journey told in three parts, and her own words, by survivor, Sarah Vannatta.

Awaiting the scheduled CT scan, medication provided by the ER doctor had relieved the vomiting, and though the headaches only grew worse, I still attended a district-wide professional development event.

But there it happened: My world went black.

I could no longer make anything out beyond a few inches from my eyes. Panicked swelled into a bubble inside my chest, then I burst into tears. Hearing me, the principal gathered my things and escorted me out. I remember telling her my head hurt and that I couldn’t see – I just couldn’t see.  She called my mother – in town, with my husband away on business – and drove me home. I vaguely remember the two of them talking and can still hear the sound of concern in both their voices. It was time for that CT scan.

(L-R): Melissa DeMotta, Robert DeMotta, Doug DeMotta, Emily Vannatta, Erik DeMotta, Elena DeMotta, Sarah Vannatta, Sean Vannatta, Mike Vannatta -Pittsburgh, PA, January 2013. Melissa is another friend who stayed with the Vannatta’s when Sarah was sick.

Following the scan, the radiologist came out and said, “You need to go see your PCP now.” When I asked why, he said he couldn’t tell me but he had already called them. Bad sign number one.

About halfway through the ten-minute trip to the PCPs office my phone rang. It was the nurse from the PCP’s office checking to make sure we were stopping in. Bad sign number two.

As my mom pulled the car in, I remember her saying, “Oh dear.” Scared and still not being able to see, I asked her, “What?” She responded that the doctor and the nurse were waiting in the door for me. Bad sign number three.

They escorted us in, sat me down, and then the doctor informed me that a golf ball-sized tumor had been found by the fourth ventricle of my brain. I had severe hydrocephalus and that was why my head hurt. He went on to explain that a bed was reserved for me in the ICU and the neurosurgeon was expecting me that day. My surgery was scheduled for 6:30 the following morning.

I remember saying to them, ‘Thank goodness, I will either be dead or better.

The next few minutes were hell. I called Mike to tell him the news. I couldn’t talk so I gave the phone to my doctor. And then I thought of my kids. These were my precious babies whom God entrusted me with. How was I going to tell them the news? Who was going to tuck them in at night?  What if I didn’t get to hold them again?  Now my heart hurt more than my head.

(L-R): Sean Vannatta, Elizabeth and Andrea Bugg, Emily Vannatta – September 2013. Andrea is a police officer who worked nights and would take care of Sarah during days.

A swirl of activity soon greeted me at the hospital. There were forms to fill out, HIPAA agreements, insurance questions, and phone calls to make. When we finished I was taken straight up to the ICU ward.

The last thing I was able to read was a sign hanging on the outside of the doors to the ICU that read: “Children under the age of 12 not permitted.” Panic set in. I was going in for brain surgery. What if I lost the ability to move my arms and hold my kids again? Would I be able to give them those sweet kisses at night? Tell them I love them? What if I didn’t make it?

I remember telling the ICU nurse that if my kids couldn’t come in, then I would drag every piece of equipment that I was attached to out to the lobby to hold them one more time. And then she did what every caring nurse did for me: she wiped my tears and told me it would be OK. She asked if they were good kids, I said yes, and then she added that if they could be quiet she would let them back. I sobbed.

There were meetings with doctors about the procedure, needles, more paperwork, and then an ominous quiet interrupted only by pump of the morphine drip.

My mother was the only one in the room with me when we met my neurosurgeon for the first time. He relayed to us a lengthy dissertation of what to expect: they would shave part of my head, a temporary drain would be drilled into my skull, an incision up the back of my neck to access the tumor, stitches, staples, risks of infection, blah blah blah. It was all a blur. I mainly remember just not wanting to hurt anymore.

At the end of this conversation he asked if we had any questions. My mother turned momma bear, “Yes. Where did you go to school?”

If I had been remotely my normal self I would have face-palmed at this statement. Here is the man who is going to be operating on my brain in 14 hours and my mother is asking where he went to school. Without missing a beat, he responded that he had gone to kindergarten in Georgia. A little levity went a long way. He went on to say he had done his undergrad in Atlanta as well as his med school there. That’s really the extent of the details I remember.

My mom countered with, “You do know we are going to get a second opinion, don’t you?”

He didn’t hesitate in warning, ‘You do know she has about two weeks, right? Best case?

There was talk about hydrocephalus and infection.

His point made, he left and then there was, again, silence. And more waiting.

A short while later, I can’t recall how long, the door opened and I remember hearing the shuffling of feet as my kids came in to my room. I count getting to hold them at this moment as good as the day I first breathed them in as a new mom.

sarah and Mike
Sarah with her husband, Mike.

There were lots of tears shed. I wished that I had the power to make it all OK for them; to reassure them somehow, but I didn’t. There isn’t much that has truly frightened me in life, but this did. This was unfair for an 11- and 8-year-old to go through.

Meanwhile, my husband was trying to get from Dallas to Northwest Arkansas in what swelled into the ice storm of 2008. He had decided to drive from Texas instead of fly because it generally took less time, but not this night. The highway was shut down and he sat about 12 miles south of the hospital where he debated walking through to make it back in time for my operation. He arrived after a fifteen-hour trip at about 4:00 in the morning.

There were more tears and hugs, but I don’t remember much. The morphine was doing its job and my memories from there are sporadic for the next few days. I recollect odd things: hallucinating about half quarters on the floor, feeling the temporary drain that had been bored into my skull, and the ache in my head that hadn’t left. My daughter would sit on my bed and stroke my hair and it was like being touched by an angel.

That was when I realized I had made it through the procedure. Now the waiting game for the pathology report to come back.

> View Part III, the conclusion

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