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Top Ten Ways I Survived a Catastrophic Brain Trauma (Six Times)

Neurosurgeon: Jonathan A. White, MD, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas

Patient: Les H. Duncan, age 59, Cavernous Angioma

I have some messed up blood vessels in my brain. They are the result of several defective genes that have been passed down through my mother's side of the family. They are dark red to blue in color and look a little bit like small mulberries. Sometimes they rupture and bleed.

Bleeding in the brain is not a good thing. It can cause temporary or permanent nerve damage, resulting in things such as an inability to walk, talk, swallow, see, hear, smell, feel, etc. It can cause the body to go into seizure. It can even cause death.

I am not alone. Literally millions of people have this condition. Many people have such minor symptoms and live their entire lives not realizing they have this condition. After all, statistically, there is only a 2 percent incidence per year of a cavernous angioma lesion-related bleed. Unfortunately, I am one of those people. Each time, my life has literally been turned upside down and placed on hold for months while I dealt with treatments, surgeries and recovery. The bottom line is that I have survived and gone on to live a normal life. Upon reflection, I have survived for the following reasons:

  1. I listened to my body. My body told me when I was really sick. I had severe headaches; weakness and numbness in my extremities; uncontrollable nausea and vomiting; loss of vision/hearing/ability to taste; muscle paralyses; etc. And when my body told me something was really wrong, I sought immediate medical attention.

  2. I made sure that I found the very best doctors, facilities and treatments available. After all, I deserved it. I researched specific doctors that were uniquely qualified to treat my particular condition; then interviewed them before hiring an exceptional doctor to take care of me. After surgery, I took advantage of all the physical, occupational and speech therapy that was available and even pursued some non-traditional treatments like acupuncture and electrical nerve stimulation to help reverse my paralysis.

  3. I kept my sense of humor and made sure I got some regular laugh therapy. I quickly learned that humor took my mind off of my troubles. Often, I was in pain and felt as though I would rather be dead. I felt that my illness was in control of me. In these times, laughter helped. I am convinced that lifting my spirits with laughter hastened my recoveries.

  4. I made recovery my full-time job. It was hard work - perhaps the hardest thing I have ever done - but the results were worth it. After all, what else did I have to do? I could not work, drive, read, watch television or play sports. Regular sessions with speech, occupational, physical therapists and acupuncturists; follow-up doctor visits; and therapy and electrical stimulation kept me pretty busy.

  5. I knew I would recover. I never, ever, not for one minute, thought that I would not get better.

  6. I kept my spiritual and emotional health strong. Recovering from a serious illness is not just about physical health. In fact, it is not even primarily about physical health. When I concentrated first and foremost on keeping my spiritual and emotional health in good shape, a return to good physical health was more likely, faster and more complete.

  7. I realized that my physical sufferings were only temporary. There were 24 things wrong with me following my last brain hemorrhage on Christmas Day 2005, including an inability to walk, see, hear, taste and swallow. Today, people often say to me, "I can't believe you've had a brain hemorrhage and brain surgery. You look terrific!" Some things came back in weeks - others took months. But, it was all only temporary.

  8. I became somewhat of a nuisance when the medical system was not moving at the pace I thought it should. The wheels of the medical system move very slowly, and the simplest of things sometimes take way too long to get done. It always seemed especially so for me because patience is not one of my virtues. When necessary, I just kept pestering my doctor's office until things began to move.

  9. I stayed positive. No stinkin' thinkin'! It is natural to feel down in the dumps when your life has been turned upside down. Your thoughts will easily drift to the negative. I replaced poisonous thoughts with uplifting, positive thoughts. One way I calmed my mind was by turning to nature. I love to watch birds. After my first brain surgery, we placed extra bird feeders in our yard so I had a vantage point to watch the birds feed from almost any window. I found a tranquil lake surrounded by beautiful trees, quiet walking trails and ornate rock formations about an hour from my home, and my wife and I would spend hours there almost every week.

  10. I prayed a lot, both talking to and listening to God. There is nothing like a good trauma to get you close to God. There is nothing like a near death experience to get you praying. Even those who do not actively practice their faith may turn to prayer during a critical illness. And yes, even those who do not believe in God, will probably start praying when faced with a catastrophe.

I have written a book, Brain Storms, detailing my illnesses and offering sage advice, wisdom and inspiration to others who are dealing with a catastrophic illness.

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