Elaine Chan-Scherer wrote this article for the St. James Newsletter. I place it here, because I think and feel her words are so important for us to read and be aware of each and everyday. How easy it is to forget the importance, fragility, and connection of each and every breath, and the beauty, love, and support of family and friends.
Words of Elaine:
Last October(2005), on the way to the pumpkin patch, I found out the results of my MRI – I had a brain tumor and needed surgery. Fortunately for me, my tumor was benign. I had a successful surgery and recovery.
This issue of the newsletter is on gratitude, so let me first express my heartfelt gratitude to my St. James community. There were times when I felt depressed or dejected, and I held on tightly to those prayers and cards and other signs of support to keep me going.
In some ways, real life is harder than brain surgery. When you have brain surgery, you have very few choices, and once you make a choice, the medical team swoops in and does their thing. The patient just has to be patient. There are not many decisions you have to make. But in everyday life, you have hundreds of small and large decisions with ambiguous outcomes (there are no clear-cut answers). When you have brain surgery, everybody loves you and drops what they are doing to offer help and support. In everyday life, everybody is busy with their own lives. When you have brain surgery, everybody knows it is a big thing. In everyday life, you can trick yourself into believing that your problem is not such a big thing and you should not bug people about whatever is bugging you.
The nurses in the ICU were constantly asking me if I was in pain. If I had any pain, they increased my medication. They told me that the latest research shows that if you give medication when the pain is low, then you actually end up needing less medication than if you wait until the pain is intolerable. There was a woman moaning all night long. I told the nurse that I felt sorry for her. He said that she was one of the lucky ones. Those who let their pain out recover better than those who hold it all in. There is some life lesson here. We need to share our pain early on, before it gets intolerable.
I learned that different people go through illness in different ways. I had much more in common with a woman I met who was going through breast cancer than with a woman I met who was having brain surgery. I found such comfort in knowing someone going through a life-threatening illness who processed her feelings and asked questions in the same way as me. I think it is important to have this kind of support.
If you are a patient, or if you are ever a patient, ask your family and friends for exactly what you need. People want to help. It is harder sometimes to sit by and watch a loved one suffering than it is to be the sufferer herself. If you tell people what would make you feel comforted, your loved ones will feel happy in giving to you, and you will feel happy in receiving. If you don’t say what you want or need (out of politeness or not wanting to impose), then your loved ones will feel helpless, or they will project onto you what THEY would want in your situation, which may not be what you need.
When I was in the midst of my crisis, there were countless moments of synchronicity (meaningful coincidences). Perhaps this is one of the ways in which God speaks to us. For example, on the morning of my consultation with the first neurosurgeon (always get a second opinion!), I bumped into a trusted and dear friend (a pastor) in the lobby of the hospital. He did not know of my plight, and bumped into me “coincidentally.” He was a great support in my healing process. Actually, I think that these moments of synchronicity happen to all of us and we just don’t notice. When something “coincidental” happens to you, look for what meaning it could have in your life.
The day before my surgery, my colleagues at CCI participated in a healing ritual for me. One of the aspects that was healing was that they were able to listen to my small but realistic fear that I might die from the surgery (there was a 99% chance that I would survive). When I was able to express this fear, and when my fear was not denied but embraced, I felt such relief. I think that if a patient is always encouraged to stay positive and to put on a brave face, that there is the risk that they carry all of the fear by themselves. I think it is important to have a positive attitude, but I also think it is important to have a safe space to express the doubts and fears as well. I did not want to go into surgery holding that 1% fear all by myself. My colleagues held it for me.
Brain surgery has freed me up to cut my hair, speak the truth, and be less afraid. Pretend that you had a brush with death and give yourself this gift of freedom. Do what you really want to do. Prioritize how you want to spend your time. Don’t do things you don’t want to do. Tell people how you really feel. And be grateful for the small moments you have with your loved ones. When I was very sick, all I wanted was to be “normal.” Enjoy your normal, everyday moments. These moments are what make up a life.