Holly's Story: Sometimes depression isn't depression
I was depressed. Like, ran away from my life in small town Ontario across the country solo to big city life in Victoria, BC. I would cry myself all the way to work in the morning, struggle to get through the day with mood swings and anger, then cry myself all the way home to my bed in the afternoon. I tried everything in my power to find my happiness again. Joining the YMCA, volunteering and practising at my favourite yoga studio, eating healthy, reading books; you name it, I tried it until one day I finally admitted I couldn’t get out from under this on my own. My mom convinced me to go to a walk-in clinic and seek help. A lovely South African doctor diagnosed me with depression stating “the fact that you have burst into tears in front of a complete stranger, when all I asked was for you to tell me the reason for your visit, tells me there is something very wrong.” The doctor prescribed me a low dose anti-depressant and referred me to a counselling program through the province of BC.
Flags started going up right away. My counsellor was confused as to why I was diagnosed with depression. She said yes, I was going through a traumatic change but I was still in complete awareness of what was causing the change and taking the steps to change it. She said I was very reasonable and logical about my sadness and that if this was because of the medication, it was the best reaction she’d seen. The medication, however, was having side effects. I was experiencing the most bizarre head pains. The lightning style pain would begin at the base of my head and shoot behind my ears. It was never a dull throb or anywhere else in my head but it was a daily struggle. Some days my balance would be thrown and the pain would be so intense a co-worker would drive me home to my bed immediately with Tylenol to help me find sleep. I went back to the walk-in clinic after two weeks and said this medication was helping the overload of emotions, but was causing serious head pain, so he tried another medication. It was in the same family of anti-depressants just with a slightly different make up. The headaches didn’t change. I went on vacation to Portland with some friends for a week and almost daily would have to return to my room to darkness and quiet because of the pain. I stopped taking the medication three days into the trip because I thought it was causing these awful pains.
Two days after returning from Portland I was still getting the head pains. One night it was so bad that I couldn’t even rest my head on my pillow because the pressure was so severe on the outside of my head. I called my mom beside myself. She said go to the hospital. The pain was so bad that I could only see through one eye, so driving at night wasn’t an option. I decided to wait until morning since the pain was almost always gone in the morning.
On Tuesday, April 28, 2015, I drove myself to Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria and checked myself in with a headache. I texted my boss and my girlfriend to let them know where I was, both showed up to sit with me while I waited for my turn. I arrived at 7:00 am in the morning and was seen by a nurse around 8:00 am. The doctor came in shortly after and gave me some Demerol for the pain and ordered a CT scan.
By 9:00 am I had results. The doctor brought me into a family room by myself to give me the results. There was a tumour on my brain. I remember hearing my voice say “what”? It sounded like a four-year-old ready to burst into tears. The doctor then outlined the necessary steps. I was to remain here, seated, until she could get an emergency consult with a neurosurgeon. I was to take these pills (a high dose of a steroid called Dexemethasone) and remain calm. She said call your mother, and she would be back shortly with our next steps.
Sometimes depression isn’t depression. Sometimes it’s a brain tumour.
I called my mother, my father, my sister and my two best friends. I texted my boss. Within the hour my best friend, my aunt and uncle were by my side, and my parents were on a flight from Toronto to Victoria. I remember talking my sister down. It was fine, I’m fine. I’m talking to you, in my clothes, walking around. I’m ok.
By 11:00 am my best friend and I were sitting in the Neurology ward of a different hospital, Victoria General, meeting Dr. Daniel Warren, Neurosurgeon. He drew a picture of my brain on his right leg and said that based on where my tumour was I had very few options. I would need to have surgery. The tumour surfaced because it was swelling and putting pressure on my brain. It was located underneath the cross section of the two major veins in my brain. If they nicked one, I would have a stroke on the table and probably be a vegetable. If they nicked the other, I probably wouldn’t survive the surgery. If they didn’t nick either, there was a large possibility I would come out myself. The notes in Dr. Warren’s letter to my now family Dr. said “Given the nature of this lesion, I have made the decision to refer the patient on to my neurosurgical colleague Dr. Stephen Hentschel, who has expertise in the management of complex intracranial neoplasms and deep cerebral tumours.” I mainly remember thinking: 'Why isn’t this Doctor laughing at my jokes?'
The next day, with my parents now by my side, I went for my next MRI and then onto a consult with Dr. Hentschel. My tumour was a 3.8 cm dural based lesion with an adjacent cyst and surrounding vasogenic edema. I had a tumour the size of a 20 year old tumour that had grown in under five years. A Right Posterior Parasagittal Meningioma
. A big fatty mass.
On May 11, 2017 I had a seven-hour-long right posterior craniotomy to remove my big fatty mass at Victoria General. I woke up that night in my room with my family standing around me, with one bizarre thought going through my head; why doesn’t anyone think I’m funny? The next morning when I woke up at 5:00 am, all the anesthetic had worn off, I will never forget the overwhelming feeling of being myself.
My healing was, I think, unusual. I was in hospital for 3 days on steroids, and then on steroids for another seven days after leaving, but have not been on any medication since. My body was numb for about a month and then I slowly regained feeling over the next two. One day my mom and I were out on our daily toddle around town when I all of a sudden noticed that my sunglasses were pinching my face. I had bought them the day before surgery and had gained significant water and steroid weight since, but didn’t know that I couldn’t feel my face until that moment when I noticed my sunglasses pinching! I shuffled everywhere for the first month or so since I couldn’t feel if my knees were working, took a lot of naps, ate all of the food and had a hard time focusing on things for a while. I tried really hard to keep moving and testing my limits to not be stuck in healing mode for any longer than I had to.
On July 16, 2015 I went for my first post-surgery MRI. My tumour was completely gone and my cyst was shrinking daily. I returned to work in my Pharmacy the very next day with the biggest grin on my face.
For the 18 months after my surgery I lived by a six-month expiry date between MRIs, never really sure if that big fatty mass would return. In July 2016, after returning to Ontario to be closer to my expanding family, my new Neurosurgeon Dr. Mark Bernstein hugged me and congratulated me that I was now okay to move to yearly MRIs!
I had two weeks between diagnosis and surgery to get right with life and death. The day of my diagnosis I made peace with my death. There were very few tears and only logical talk. My family and friends only did and talked about life in the now, only did and ate things that made us happy. There was no future after May 11 as far as I was concerned, only the now. I will never forget the strength of the people I had around me, and the warmth of the people who wanted to be there but couldn’t. I will never forget the relief of waking up in that hospital bed and knowing how 100% myself I was.
Thank you Holly for sharing your story!