A Personal Story: How Coping with Tragedy in a Positive Way Saved My Life

coping with tragedy

It’s one thing to meet me, then to gradually realize that something is different but hard to identify. People sometimes remark on that, saying “What’s unusual about you? You’re so… upbeat. But I get the sense that you struggle with something.” That “something” resulted in my making medical history, though that was not my goal. Surviving a life-threatening medical problem and the risky emergency surgery to save me from it, was my objective. It all started when I didn’t feel well in 2003.

Doctors mentioned that they couldn’t find anything wrong with me, though I was stumbling from the effort to walk correctly, struggling to prevent food and drinks from dribbling out my mouth, and feeling tired all the time. I even struggled to read or to write, and that’s not a good situation for a writer. When I ended up in an emergency room after waking up completely blind one day, life took a dramatic whip into a whirlwind of activity focused at saving my very endangered life. An MRI revealed that I had a benign though potentially fatal brain tumor at the base of my skull. A Petroclival Tentorial Meningioma, it was crushing all the nerves passing beyond my head and into my spine. The doctor who diagnosed the problem was stunned that I was alive for his exam. The tumor was large enough to make most people too weak to talk, to walk or to function in any meaningful way. I needed surgery as fast as we could locate a brain surgeon with the skill to remove the problem without killing me in the process. In order to remove the tumor, the doctor would need to break my jaw, break the cheek and eye socket of one side on my face, and pray not to accidentally touch nerves – those not already embedded in the tumor –  that would either paralyze or kill me on the spot as the tumor was pulled out of my head.

Stress? It was more than I can describe. I had one huge thing preventing me from falling apart at the situation, after I recovered from fainting over the medical news, that is. I knew without any hesitation that I needed to keep my wits and my sense of humor about me. Without them I’d die before surgery. Despair, fear, and the unknown can do that to a person even if she’s certified in counseling skills, and in handling end of life issues.  I knew very well what the newly diagnosed problem was: Deadly.

I informed everyone who loved me about the diagnosis after I reached home. I expected the shrieks and sighs that I heard, the people running through my doorway to embrace me as they wept in fear and sympathy. I addressed them with specific instructions: “I have one chance to stay alive. You need to help me to do that. NO DESPAIR; nobody is allowed to speak out loud of what their imaginations are doing.  No questions and above all, NO NEGATIVITY!. The medical team is in charge and each member of the team respects my need for calm. We’re waiting to learn the surgery date. If you want to visit me in the hospital, the price of admission is to tell me a joke that I’ve never heard. Keep me laughing. I will be in excruciating pain, unable to move about without help, and sad at my bruised, swollen facial appearance. I’m already scared. Help me to feel brave. I need to see a pleasant future.”

Those concepts saved my life. I’m the first person to see again after such a medical mishap. I lived past a surgery that could have killed me. What saved me is a to-my-gut realization that I must, must, MUST remain upbeat no matter what.

 Going into surgery, I laughed at the frightened friends pulling my stretcher away from the nurses heading to the operating room. The friends were staring at the blue marker lining the places where doctors with medical saws would cut through my face. “Me Warrior-Woman. No fear. Pillow fight to follow the operation. Be there,” I announced. My wannabe-rescuers choked on their laughter, let go of the steel rails, and let the nurses guide my stretcher as necessary.

I did all that to steel myself to make it into and out of the operating room. I needed to walk the talk that I give to my life coaching clients. And then I needed a new post-surgical strategy: Figuring out how to see again despite the crushed optic nerves. Not one medical expert can puff up crushed optic nerves and make them live again. Mine were not the pink of plump, living optic nerves. We had a serious problem to solve so that I could stop being blind. Eye transplants were not an option.

I delved into the world of alternative healing, me, a woman who’d made it through college on pizza and snack bars! I became an organic vegetarian focused on healing my body from the cellular level up and outward. I had nothing to lose, though my patience wore thin at doctors who called me crazy. It was a lot of fun to listen to them announcing the findings of subsequent vision tests for the next few years. I kept seeing better at each exam until I reached “almost normal vision” status. Revenge can be fun.

The overall tactics that I used to cope with a tragic situation were as follows. They can help anyone willing to use them in sincerity despite extreme distress:

  • I refused to blame anyone for the delayed medical care that I had desperately needed long before the MRI revealed the tumor. Toxic anger would only undermine my chances for recovery.
  • I needed to focus away from the panic engulfing me.
  • I needed to build up specific stocks of chemicals created by happiness. They heal people in still-to-be-discovered ways.
  • A sense of a desirable future. I knew that I would cope even as a permanently blind person, but I needed a mindset that would let me do so.

Your life might involve some other form of sorrow, fear, or danger. I beg you: Think your way out of the problem. It is possible. I even wrote a book about it: EMPOWER Yourself to Cope with a Medical Challenge print and E- book.