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Fine tuning resilience beyond neurosurgery

Author: Cynthia Percival

Posted on Jan 13, 2022

Category: Kinesiology , UNB Fredericton , Inspiring Stories


Written by Cynthia Percival (BPE'78)

After graduating from UNB with a Physical Education degree in 1978, I coached downhill skiing for 40 years.  Living in rural Ontario I participated in ongoing outdoor activities, including hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and both XC and downhill skiing in winter. My lifestyle was (and is) about making healthy choices and enjoying vigorous social relationships.  

I never fathomed that at age 57 I would suddenly become gravely ill. During my sleep in February of 2014, I was jolted out of bed with a seizure. At the emergency department the doctors discovered that I had a clementine-sized meningioma (brain tumor) over my motor skills band and wrapped around major blood vessels. I was shocked - it seemed a worst nightmare. Five days later I met my main neurosurgeon (of four) had an MRI and set a date for surgery.  If I survived, the prognosis was that I would likely not walk for talk for some time.  

With so many questions and uncertainties to consider before this serious procedure, I devised a methodical plan in preparation. Searching for understanding, which can help dispel fear, I read and even watched several neurosurgical operations. I wrote out the blessings in my life, a ‘Heaven Can Wait’ list, which I read daily, and I prayed a lot with friends about every aspect of what lay ahead. I organized full day home visits for the month afterwards and I sent out seven group emails asking for hopeful thoughts and prayers. The heartfelt support was overwhelming, and it gave me a much-appreciated emotional empowerment to take on the actual neurosurgery feeling calm and prepared, no matter the outcome.

Once I regained consciousness, lying motionless, with compression leggings, multiple tubes in both arms and wrists and ongoing whirring of machines in a stark environment, I was very uncomfortable. No visitors were allowed, so my soothing reprieves were the fact that I was breathing, and I could scroll through colorful photos of Canadian landscape art on my cell phone. Forty-eight hours later, not a week as speculated, I was able to move my ankles and lift my legs, which afforded me an immediate release from the hospital to go home. This was the beginning of my six plus year quest to heal and recover. 

With a very itchy head and much impatience, I waited 17 days until I could wash my hair and about three weeks for the tumor’s benign biopsy results. Fortunately, I have always participated in physical activities, so I was somewhat physically strong, and prepared for the ten months of bedrest and excessive medications that followed, while I stabilized. This combination, although necessary, completely weakened my physiology. The medications were to assist in cerebral relaxation as I suffered painful aches if I considered thoughts or decisions, all of which are usually automatic, almost instinctual. Environmental conditions with bright lights, music, or more than one person talking nearby, all caused me severe cerebral throbbing. Months later when I could independently walk downstairs, I only watched wilderness scenes with low level nature sounds. In addition to being very weak, I was often dazed, even disoriented in my own home. I would tremble considering preferences and sometimes panic with anxiety because I could not recall words or circumstances that were usually so familiar. As the years passed my TBI (traumatic brain injury) still does not cope well with a lot of stimulation at once. Busy places that require the brain to process a lot of activity, which is done slower than normal, can cause exhaustion and brain fog. 

The serious drugs to support follow up of a cranial flap opening being drilled into a skull to remove tumors are quite severe and can have debilitating side effects like insecurity, confusion and, if used long term, organ deterioration. Slowly I weaned off heavy medications, so I could walk without stumbling, stand in the shower without fear of falling over and eventually so I could recall what conversations were about. Finding words to express how I felt or thought was challenging, and especially troubling, as I did not have my usual recall. 

Initial helpful therapies came from crocheting a blanket to aid my eye-hand coordination and studying four and five letter word alignment booklets, which improved my confidence to believe that I could still think. Being at home without purpose was frustrating so I took on producing a hardcover art book, A Brush with Nature, honoring my mum’s painted creations from wilderness areas across Canada. This was so therapeutic, calming my spirits to dwell in natural spaces and honouring someone special to me.

My journey to full recovery has had fluctuations over the years. Ending drug dependency - a major goal - meant that I could have normal mental thought retention, keep my organs healthy and start back on physical restoration. I have learned to ease my stress, moderate activities before exhaustion and periodically review and rejoice how far I have come, rather than feel I must be perfect. Getting my driving license reinstated was a challenge. The ultimate test for my physiological resiliency was to perform downhill skiing, in heavy snow and at high altitudes. Once I achieved this, at Revelstoke in British Columbia, I knew my usual active lifestyle could certainty achieve full recovery. 

My progression through healing has given me a compassionate understanding for those who have disabilities that they cannot control, and a belief in myself that I can do anything I set my foresight upon. My resilience stems from asking for emotional courage and physical strength, plus continuous wonderment to pursue solutions, set incremental goals, and push myself beyond. I solely consider daily ‘how to heal myself and recover’. 

Today, I not only walk and talk, but I ski in the mountains again and sing from my kayak.  I can once again navigate life independently and every few months I am astounded to reach yet another improved cognitive or neurological capability.  Focusing on the out-of-doors in wilderness places, I have evolved a new savour for life which is dedicated to fantasy travels. These have taken me hiking in Iceland, trekking around Scotland, venturing across Australia, island hopping in New Zealand, kayaking in Georgian Bay and off Vancouver Island, snorkeling in the South Caribbean and roving the Serengeti in East Africa. I’m enthusiastic to be headed to Patagonia soon, so I can walk with penguins and journey amid the lofty peaks of the Torres del Paine in Chile, then swim with sea lions in the Galapagos and venture the Amazon by canoe. 

Anyone receiving a life-threatening diagnosis goes through stages of coping and healing. My goal continues to be ‘I want to thrive’. I am grateful to delight in every day, relish each moment and believe in the influences of perseverance, persistence, and patience. Any goal that is envisioned and set upon in your emotional heart is truly possible.   

  

You can see published stories of Cynthia’s adventures at; cpercival@ymail.com