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AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 3, 2019

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The Unfiltered Neurosurgeon

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The Paul Anka song, “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” is an odd choice to stream when one is inside an MRI waiting for a brain scan to commence, but it calmed my claustrophobia until the benzo kicked in. The tech probably chose the song because he figured I was yet another hypochondriac brain surgeon fretting about a brain tumor festering inside her head when all she had was a touch of vertigo.

As my dreamy thoughts slow danced to Paul Anka, the machine scanned my brain. My reverie was interrupted by the ghost outline of the neuroradiologist hovering over me and whispering a familiar lyric – something about an “interesting finding” and the need to repeat the scan with dye. Someone placed a needle in my antecubital vein. I felt no prick, “just a kiss” as Paul crooned his sugary melody. I was tucked in the magnetic cocoon, under the influence of pharmacological science as the machine hummed along to Mr. Anka. 

When it was finished, I had not even changed out of the form-fitting gown when the radiologist appeared out of the formless Xanax cloud to deliver a buzz kill:

“Do you have cancer?” 

“No.”

“Your clivus is eaten through.”

These were words I did not want to hear particularly on an empty stomach. Although I was still floating, my groovy spell was shook. I spent the next two days in a sleepwalk, trying to process what the radiologist had told me. Then, I read the report. The sentence rule out malignancy, i.e., “multiple myeloma” made me choke faint and low. Myeloma of the clivus? Lo! Heaven forbid not there and not now – there was still so much I wanted to do.

Instead of Paul Anka’s soothing tune, now I was hearing Edgar Allan Poe’s lines: “Death looks gigantically down.”

My prior life disappeared from the rearview mirror. Objects appeared farther away as my future foreshortened. Matters became more precious and minor in an adjustment of time from the linear to the circular. I called my chief and apologized for my pathology. News of this nature situates one in an atmosphere of fear within a strange city alone.

I adopted a wait-and-see plan of inaction. Two weeks passed before I viewed my scan. The images of my brain made me more nauseous than the vertigo. I was paralyzed, but it was Jane who, as she lay trying not to die, threatened to end our friendship if I did not move to save myself. Emerging from the fog of disease, I finally asked for help and two kind colleagues took over, supplying the shoulders I needed to rest my head on. 

Four hellish weeks passed before getting a resolution: the workup concluded that my clivus lesion was probably fibrous dysplasia. There was nothing to be done except continue like nothing had ever happened. But something had definitely changed: the new melody of my life resembled nothing that was.

After Jane died, I remembered her pestering phone calls urging me not to waste days, even as her own time currency was spent. If there’s a way to thank Jane, I’ll find it someday: because she was right, and I was a fool.

Nowadays, I don’t fear death; it’s the living that keeps me awake at night – because you must live with your derangements. Life’s a game, but it’s one without any winners – the good and the bad and the worst and the best all go to their eternal rest. 

Written in gratitude to Paul Anka and Edgar Allan Poe, whose words appear here and who reminded me above all else to revere time. 

References

1. Anka, P. (1958). Put Your Head on My Shoulders.

2. Poe, E. A. (1831). The City in the Sea.

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