Chapter 2 – The First MRI

Paula and I started this blog on May 22nd, when I finished my first post stating “So I’ll be telling the story chronologically in the next days or weeks. Not rushing it.” The first chapter of the story was posted on May 24th, over 7 weeks ago. Talk about not rushing it. Since we have no known readers thus far, I guess that gap won’t matter too much for you, Reader from the Future. Moving on.

I don’t know if you ever had a head MRI, but it’s not the greatest thing in the world. Here’s the step by step:

1) Take off your clothes and put on an apron
2) Lie down on a table
3) Technician imobilizes your neck and puts headphones on you. Sometimes they ask which style of music you wish to listen to during the procedure. I usually pick classical since it helps me sleep.

(If it’s an MRI with contrast, here is when they put the IV in your vein. This one didn’t require contrast.) 

4) Table slides into a capsule. You have a small mirror in front of you, which helps if you wanna glance at the exterior. I always choose to keep my eyes shut the whole time, so I don’t feel like I’m being buried alive.
5) While you’re listening to Bach, they turn on the machine and make it seem like the aliens have finally attacked the Earth. Either that or you’re in a rave: all sorts of loud noises start playing inside the capsule. I usually can sleep even during those, except when the technician stops the music to ask if everything is ok.

(Here they’ll say: “now I’m gonna inject the contrast. You’re gonna feel a cold substance through your body”. The substance is called Gadolinium and I’ve been injected with it twice. The first time when I had an MRI after a groin strain, with no collateral effects. The second time, during my second head MRI , I wasn’t so lucky. But I’ll talk about it next chapter.) 

6) After a long period – 30 minutes to an hour – which seems like an eternity, the noise stops and you get out.

7) And then, and this is an optional step, you wake up the following morning with your doctor calling with a puffy voice to say “The radiologist found something. You should see a neurologist immediately. But don’t worry, it’s probably nothing. But schedule an appointment asap.”
8) And you try to remain calm next to your wife while you’re secretly worrying you’re gonna die at 34.

Chapter 1 – “We have to investigate”

Yesterday I accomplished two very small steps for mankind, but giant leaps for myself. I cooked and I clap-killed a mosquito. Like I said, nothing huge, but two things I hadn’t done since the surgery.

One week before I tried making a grilled cheese in my electric grill, but turned it on, went to the bathroom and completely forgot about it. So I wasn’t sure I was ready to focus on properly cooking a meal. But I did it! I made a meat/mushroom/onion pie and it turned out pretty tasty. 🙂

Regarding the mosquito thing, I always had a feud with those little beasts, so I specialized in spotting and killing them. But lately my slow reflexes rendered me unable to catch the tiny bastards. So when that small, lifeless insect body fell down as I opened my hands, I was pretty happy with myself… okay I can see how this is creepy. Moving on!

Besides mosquitos, one thing that bothered me most of my life was (and still is) migraines. Although I have friends (mostly female) who have the worst type of it, even vomiting when they’re afflicted, mine aren’t as bad but neither so mild. I have what they call an aura, a sign that my body gives hours before the migraine kicks in.

This gives me time to gulp down an aspirin, a Tylenol or any other kind of over the counter migraine relief and prevent the malady from ever existing. If I don’t take anything, however, I’m overcome by pain above my eyes and extreme sensibility for light and sound. Sometimes it keeps me from doing anything else, especially things that demand too much reasoning.

I don’t remember when I started having migraines. I know I already had them when I moved out of my parents house and started college, because I recall having to smoke marijuana when Tylenol alone didn’t work. I was 21 by then, but I’m pretty sure I had migraines prior to that.

So I’ve had migraines for at least 13 years. Usually around twice a week, even having them every day in some more stressful weeks.

[Which doesn’t mean stress is the main cause. I traced it down to my bad quality of sleep, which I remember having since I was 10 and my father sent (or sentenced) me to bed early and I just couldn’t fall asleep even after keeping my eyes shut for two hours. So I’d go to the living room, where he would be watching TV, and fell asleep on the couch. That was our daily ritual.

But even after finally sleeping it wasn’t over. I woke up lots of times during the night, which led me to be tired all day and, eventually, being affected by the darn migraines. If I stayed without food for too many hours and/or spent too much time in front of the computer after a disturbed night, it was almost certain I would have it.]

All this to explain how I got to find my tumor. Last december I woke up in the middle of the night with a headache more painful than my usual migraines. Even more unusual was being roused by it, since my migraines always happened with me awake.

I took a RiteAid migraine relief pill and went back to sleep. Got up a few hours later, still with the headache. I never stopped to think it didn’t have the same characteristics as my migraines (this one ached in other parts of the head), since it was just as debilitating.

Before leaving for work, I took a stronger pill. Then, at work, a different one. None worked. The headache lasted for 3 or 4 days, until I got to a point where I had to leave work early and call my wife, Paula, to come with me to a clinic in order to check it.

As I drove to pick her up, I got scared of passing out on the wheel. I had a feeling it could be something serious – although I’ve learned to discard these feelings, since I have a tendency to hypochondriasis.

In Brazil I had seen many doctors about it, but all of them dismissed my migraines as something that has no known cure and, if a common aspirin – I actually took Neosaldina (caffeine/isometheptene mucate/metamizole) – stopped it, why worry?

So I went as a walk-in to a clinic at La Brea x Fountain, Citizens Medical Group, and saw a nurse.

INT. CLINIC – OFFICE – DAY

I sit next to PAULA as the NURSE, 21, takes my blood pressure, which is 110/70 as usual, a fact that makes me proud – as if I had any merit in that.

NURSE
So what brings you here today?

MAURICIO
I have a headache that’s lasting four days now.
I’ve always had migraines, 2 or 3 times
a week for the last 15 years, but they
always stop with a common aspirin.
This one hasn’t, and I’ve tried everything.

NURSE
What do you mean you’ve had migraines
for 15 years? This is not normal.
We have to investigate it.

(Now, as I write it, I’m thinking I should track this blessed woman and thank her properly. What’s the right way to say “I owe you my life”?)

Nurse leaves the room and comes back with a request for an MRI, signed by Dr. Van Tassell. And a prescription for a stronger medication, Fioricet.

She also had my blood examined, which revealed a slightly high colesterol, something expected after 18 months in the U.S. In’n’Out‘s to blame for that.

So I went home and scheduled a head MRI a week from then. Totally unworriedly. So unworriedly that a few days later I reschedule it for five days later and travel to Vegas for the weekend.

Ganglio…?

My name is Mauricio. I’m 34, Brazilian, currently finishing my MFA in Screenwriting in Los Angeles at AFI. Eighteen days ago I’ve undergone a surgery that removed a benign tumor from my brain. Since then it’s been the wildest ride of my life, which culminated in some amazing news four days ago: the tumor, labeled by my doctor, John Yu, a ganglioneurocytoma (some kind of neurocytoma) was completely removed, meaning there’s next to zero chance of recurrence (which is usually 20% with neurocytomas).

Here’s how that conversation went (I recorded so I could hear it again later since my attention span hasn’t gone back to normal yet):

INT. CEDARS SINAI – ROOM – DAY

DR. YU enters the room with his ASSISTANT. I’m sitting next to my wife, PAULA, 30. We’re not sure what to expect, since the night before I read a bunch of stuff about doing chemo following brain surgery .

DR. YU
We have great news. We were able to
remove everything. It was a Ganglioneurocytoma.

PAULA
Ganglio…?

DR. YU
Ganglioneurocytoma. It’s a grade one,
which is a benign tumor.

MAURICIO
Grade one? So it’s not a low-grade glioma.

[Which was the initial prognosis before the surgery]

DR. YU
It’s not a low-grade glioma, so it’s good.

MAURICIO
That’s great!

Paula opens her notebook, grabs a pen.

PAULA
What’s the name?

DR. YU
It’s called a grade one ganglioneurocytoma.
G-a-n-g-l-i-o-n-e-u-r-o-c-y-t-o-m-a.

MAURICIO
That’s great, great to know.

DR. YU
Very slow grade tumor. But it’s firm, so it was (?)

MAURICIO
So when do you think it originated?

[Before Dr. Yu I was seeing Dr. Rovner, who mentioned the mass found in my brain could be congenital. (Rovner retired, which led me to seek a new doctor) Also, I’ve had migraines for 15 years, a soccer trauma 5 years ago and some more intense headaches in the last 6 months, so I was curious about the inception of it]

DR. YU
When it origi­— who knows?

MAURICIO
Not congenital though?

DR. YU
Not congenital, a slow growing benign tumor.

PAULA
So, this kind of tumor, how does it usually work?

YU
It usually works if we remove it all
then it should be cured. And we think
we removed it all based on the MRI. It’s good.
Cured. One of the few times I can say that.

MAURICIO
That’s awesome.

DR. YU
It’s very awesome. You need to
go celebrate today.

MAURICIO
So no chemo, radio.

DR. YU
No chemo, radio, nothing.

MAURICIO
That’s amazing.

DR. YU
Yeah. It’s great.

So now I only have to get my next MRI in one year, just to make sure the tumor doesn’t come back, which would be shitty. But so far I feel like a million bucks.

This blog is supposed to serve a few different purposes. The main one is to help other people who are about to have brain surgery or have just had it.

This amazing post from Everywhereist has helped me a lot in the last weeks. It’s perfect, as one can attest from the 500+ praiseful comments.

The second purpose is to help me go back to writing, which I’ve been unable to do since the surgery. There were times when I was sure I’d never again be able to focus for more than five seconds at a time. Everyone kept telling me it was temporary and I shouldn’t rush it. And deep down I knew it, but time was going by in slow-motion and I had too much of it to overthink everything.

The final one is another selfish end: I need to relive my last months for self-therapy. I’ve always considered myself pretty well-centered psychologically, but being confronted with the uncertainty of a future took its toll on my sanity and ability to focus on long-term goals.

So I’ll be telling the story chronologically in the next days or weeks. Not rushing it. Hope it helps someone somehow.