After last week's incredible guest post from Amanda about the journey of her little Sophia who was born premature, both she and I were touched by the overwhelming response. I asked for other members of the MM community who felt they had a personal experience they'd like to share in a guest post to contact me and several did. You'll be hearing their stories here in coming days and weeks. One of those who felt she had a story she wanted to tell was Freya, who found some enormous positives in a very tough situation she went through with her younger sister in 2007…..
At the time, Freya was 20 and her sister Nicola was 16. Freya writes….
The night before my little sister Nicola had an MRI, she wanted to cancel it. She decided that her reoccurring headaches were going away, and that it would be a waste of time. Considering she came to this conclusion the night before her early morning scan, our mother made her keep the appointment. No-one in our family actually thought the MRI would reveal anything; it was just a precaution, a reassurance, something to say, look baby, you’re fine, everyone gets stressed out during their HSC.
Apart from she wasn’t fine. The MRI showed a benign tumour. Everyone decided that surgery was the best option. There were risks, but they were low. Her expect hospital stay was less than two weeks.
During her initial operation she had a haemorrhage. The surgeons were able to control this, it mostly meant a few more nights in the ICU. While she was recovering – thanks to the morphine – she became a floor favourite. She sung Mustang Sally at the top of her lungs; in the middle of rounds she called the head of the ICU a ‘silly old man’; when our older sister and I were talking about our plans for the next year she remarked; ‘Oh these plans we make, sitting on our arses’. Then she stopped talking. She stopped holding our hands. She stopped obeying the doctor’s commands.
Eventually, it was revealed that she had a stroke.
Almost immediately, she was put into an assisted coma.
It isn’t easy to see your little sister surrounded by a myriad of machines that are breathing for her, with staples train-tracking her head, a section of her skull sunken in, and her eye bruised. To get through it, I concentrated on what was still there, on what was still the same. When she was awake, it was her big beautiful brown eyes. When she was sedated it was little things, like her insanely long eyelashes. I found talking to her was the easiest way to get through it. I would tell her all about what had happened to me that day, what had happened to my friends that week, and when I ran out of material, I would tell her what happened to everyone on Ramsay Street. It was my way of getting through it, and besides, how often do you get to talk to a sibling without them wisecracking back?
The nurses in ICU were my family’s constant. They encouraged us to put photographs of her around her bed, and they hung the stuffed monkeys I bought her off life support machines. They let me go home with a hospital gown that I dyed purple and stuck stars over, and laughed with me when we realized that it made Nicola look like she belonged in Harry Potter. They truly helped me to realise that Nicola was still Nicola and that whatever was happening did not define her.
You somehow think that when someone you love is walking this fragile line that all you can do is think about it and cry. Somehow though, life naturally goes on. Like the time when I was researching an assignment on coming-of-age rites and asked my father a question to do with subincision, which he — of course — referred onto the cutest intern on the floor. You honestly have no choice to see the comedy in the small moments, or the joy in the small things, or the way in which no matter the circumstances, your father will always find a way to embarrass you.
While Nicola was coming out her coma, she had an aneurysm. We were told she would likely not survive the surgery to clip it, but she would die without it. She miraculously pulled through the surgery, but we didn’t know what version of Nicola we were going to get back.
The most precious moment of my life came when she had finally been taken off many of the machines that had been keeping her alive. I was finally able to climb into the bed and properly cuddle her. After awhile – with the hand she could still use – she began to stroke my long hair, and this is when I knew for certain that she knew who I was and that she was telling me that it was all going to be okay. I then asked her if she wanted me to shave my head out of solidarity with her, and she shook her head. When I asked her if it was because my face was too round to pull off the bald head look, she nodded. It was then I knew she was still our Nicola.
We were told that – in an odd way – it was lucky that she had her stroke young, as because her brain was young it was ‘plastic’ and able to rewire the connections quickly. And it did. Over close to two months, she learnt to regain her speech, and she learnt to walk on her own again. Her fellow residents in the rehab unit – including the inspirational Cynthia Bantam – became her cheerleaders; they clapped for her when she took her first shaky steps, and got excited if she used her voice. The whole time she was recovering, there would be little snippets of the Nicola we had known for seventeen years; this feisty, tenacious, hilarious force of nature. These little snippets – even if it was just revealed in a line she said once a day – are the only moments that really count. You don’t take note about what is lost; you take note of what is achieved in spite of it.
Less than six months after her initial surgery, to deafening applause, Nicola received her High School Certificate. Two years on – as clichéd as it sounds – she is studying to be a nurse. I am in constant awe of the way Nicola has handled her recovery. She spent her four months of her final year of High School in hospital; instead of going out drinking on her eighteenth birthday, she spent it receiving radiation; she spent her gap year not travelling and clubbing, but regaining her strength and memory. She’s never once asked, ‘why did this happen to me?’ or resented her classmates or friends for being healthy. To me, Nicola is the personification of grace and strength, and definitely, the most beautiful person I know. Also? Thanks perhaps to my play-by-play recount of Neighbours while she was in a coma, she is now addicted to it – sorry mum and dad.
What a beautiful story…..thank you for sharing it Freya. When Freya contacted me about this after reading Amanda's guest post last week, she explained that she wanted to focus on the positives in the hope of giving strength and encouragement to others who may be going through a tough time. Nailed it.
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