Thursday, June 23, 2011

Death of a (small part of the) Brain, Observed

I suddenly felt light-headed and my left hand was tingling, then my toes. I was sipping a coke at one of our favorite cafes, waiting on my lunch. As they brought Beth’s plate, then mine, I shifted my weight, moved my shoulder, but it got no better. The left side of my mouth felt like I was at the dentist, but also the rest of my left face, top, middle and bottom (that’s not supposed to happen). There was no headache. Something was amiss, terribly amiss inside my head. A parasite (I recalled that pork kabob at Momma Mia’s, a little too rare, about a year ago) or a tumor had decided to manifest itself, or I was having a stroke. My left arm felt heavy, wanting to fall to my side, and when I eventually tried to stand, I had trouble walking. I needed help to stay on my feet.

“A stroke?! I’ve no risk factors for stroke.” My mind rebelled against the reasoned judgment of my new friend and colleague Jerry Koleski whose number I had at hand, an American internist at Partners in Hope hospital, a major HIV project in Lilongwe which helps with other medical needs in some circumstances. Denial was working hard, but my entire left side was still tingling. Lunch in Lilongwe was being interdicted by life, or maybe impending death. The owner of the Cappuccino CafĂ© rushed for aspirin suggested by my doctor friend who called back as it arrived: “Don’t take it. If you’re bleeding it’ll make it worse. Come on over to the house. I’m just three blocks away.” After an exam confirmed his suspicions of probable stroke, several hours of negotiating with insurance companies, led by Jerry’s wife Elizabeth helping Beth, an air evacuation to South Africa was arranged as Malawi didn’t have what we needed. It would be no less than 12 hours later and maybe as much as 22, but it all fell through when the chosen company called at the hospital late that night to say they didn’t work with our insurance company. Our missions minister visiting Tanzania en route to see us the next day with his wife and children got on the web (to which we had no access) and got us tickets on the commercial flight the next day at noon.

The 3 hour flight was relatively uneventful, and wheel chair assistance whisking through all immigration and customs stations got us into a taxi and out to Milpark Hospital the Malawi-based docs had used several times. An MRI followed our ER visit, confirming the stroke, an area of tissue about the size of an olive in the brain’s right thalamus being affected.

A stroke. Part of my brain dying, starved of blood, glucose and oxygen. How much will I lose? Is my work finished? I’ve not really gotten started. Am I finished? Will it get worse? Will it get well? Lord, what’s up? Why? What will I do? Will this eventually help in some strange way with what you want me to do? As we’d gotten into the car that first day to see our friend I’d given Beth messages for our children. As I went to sleep that second night I again had a little talk with the Lord. I knew he was there, but like Jonah, who didn’t find the presence of the Lord as manifested in the storm or the fish too comforting, I didn’t either. I thought my wife would've been more comforting, but she'd gone to stay with other new friends in Johannesburg.

I’m out of the hospital now. I’ve had a “lacunar” stroke, deep inside my brain. They often leave no symptoms (at least with the first one), and I’m walking better, but my whole left side is still tingling, including my left chest and belly, front and back. I’ve learned that my blood pressure tends to go up really high when I’m stoked or stroked. I’m on some meds for that, and one aspirin a day, though there’s no evidence that a clot played a part in this one. I left the hospital two days ago, and will fly to Malawi tomorrow, God willing.

I have no more idea “why” this happened than when it first began, but I am much more aware of my dependence on God for everything, including this breath. I am more humbled as to my place in the universe, and the importance of “my plans” in the will of the Lord. While I have no doubt the Lord is willing to work with me, to use me, in fact is working with me and using me to bless others through me, aware that I can and do have some part, however small, in the cosmic story he is unfolding, I am also more aware than ever that he doesn’t really need me. He is not dependent on me to complete the story or even to do “the task” that I’m currently called to do. Rather when he calls, my task is to answer “yes” to whatever he wills, even if the call is, “Come home.” If nothing else, I’m much more aware that, as the hymn says, “Today I’m nearer to my home than e’er I’ve been before.”

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