Relax, It’s Just Brain Surgery

At a recent appointment, our neurologist suggested deep brain stimulation for our son.

Brain surgery.

A recommendation for another surgery was unexpected. We had just weaned off the Onfi and were down to only two seizure medications. The switch from keto to modified Atkins proved challenging to keep his ketones up, which is shifting us to a trajectory that will place him on a normal diet for the first time in almost 10 years. Still, with those changes, we haven’t seen an increase in seizures. Considering the toll puberty has taken on his body physically and emotionally, I was grateful to be where we were.

But we’ve been at this long enough to know it’s not just about seizure freedom. Our focus has always been on finding the balance between seizures and quality of life, since heavily medicating him never stopped the seizures but turned him into a zombie. At one point, he was on 4 medications, the ketogenic diet plus the VNS, and even then, seizures would break through. That he can go to school and learn, play baseball and video games, and have a life at all is more than we could have hoped all those years ago, watching seizures wrack his tiny body.

We also know that our choices aren’t just about the present. We also have to think about the future, and that future includes the potential dangers that come with uncontrolled seizures and epilepsy. Our son’s condition presents similar to Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, and with that comes an increased risk of SUDEP.

Any options that lower his risk but still allow him to have a life are worth exploring, especially because our list of options continues to shrink. I hope for continued advancements in technology and medication; deep brain stimulation is a good example. It wasn’t an option for children with epilepsy until recently, but now it is being offered for our son.

Which brings us back to…brain surgery.

I’m not sure what I expected before we met with the neurosurgeon. Correction: I expected brain surgery to include opening up our son’s skull with power tools. When the surgeon explained what the surgery actually entailed, I felt a sense of relief. Other than the fact that, yes, things would be inserted into our son’s brain, it sounded similar to the VNS surgery. It also helped that the surgeon, the same surgeon who did our son’s VNS surgery, is the epitome of cool and has done the surgery enough that it sounds like he’s describing a routine task.

I’d imagine it would be the same as a pilot describing how to land an airplane. Sure, it makes sense, but there’s enough awareness and humility on my part to know that a) I can’t do it and b) you obviously know what you’re doing, so I can relax and let you land the plane.

I left the consultation feeling less overwhelmed and in favor of the procedure. We also talked to our son about it because he’s old enough to have an opinion about his body. He had a few basic questions but did not hesitate before agreeing to the surgery.

And, with that, the decision has been made.

Let’s land this plane, doc.

A Year With The VNS

Last December marked the one-year anniversary of my son’s VNS surgery.

Leading up to the surgery, I was a wreck. The week before, I had to give a preview of a presentation to one of our executives. I was not present and I stumbled through, relying heavily on the notes that I threw together on a handful of index cards. A few weeks later, my boss commented that she noticed how off I was. “You’re normally so put together. I don’t know what happened.” I did, I thought. My son was about to have surgery.

As I wrote about when we were contemplating the VNS, there is something about a surgery that is so daunting. With medications or the ketogenic diet, we can stop them if they aren’t working and the side effects eventually go away. But you can’t “uncut” my child. Once the scalpel breaks the skin, that’s it. It’s done. Even if the VNS is turned off or if the leads are removed, there is no going back. That thought weighed heavily on my mind right up to when they wheeled him back to the operating room.

Thankfully, we are near one of the best children’s hospitals in the country, and the surgery went smoothly. The device was turned on a few weeks later, and the waiting game began.

For the first six months, I didn’t expect much of anything to happen, which was great because not much of anything happened. Except for the vibration in his voice from the tingle of the VNS and the two visible scars, there was no change.  We didn’t see any reduction in seizures, even as the doctors adjusted the intensity and frequency of the pulses.

At nine months, there was more of the same. His vocal cords seemed to adjust and his vibrato was less pronounced, but I could still hear it. Again, though, there was no seizure reduction.

A year after his VNS surgery, I would love to write that it took a year for the VNS to really start helping my son. I would love to write that he is seizure-free and that we were able to wean him off the ketogenic diet or remove a few pills from the handfuls of pills he takes every day. I would love to write that I sleep any better knowing that the VNS will protect my son from a catastrophic seizure and that I sleep much better at night.

But I can’t.

The obvious question is, knowing what I know now, would I have still gone through with the surgery?

The short answer is yes. The VNS helps a lot of people. At the time, we didn’t know whether it would work and I was and still am willing to try anything to reduce or prevent my son’s seizures. I’m disappointed that it didn’t do more for him, but it was worth trying.

Maybe someday it will help. Maybe it is already helping with seizures that we can’t see, or maybe it will someday prevent a really bad seizure.

What Can’t Be Undone

The suggestion to implant a VNS was made by our neurologist years ago. But there were still options to try so we held off. Unfortunately, CBD was not our miracle and other medications didn’t help. The seizures kept coming and we ran out of things to try.

When our neurologist brought up the VNS again, I felt the overwhelming weight of the decision squeezing the air out of me. If it even has the potential to improve his quality of life, she asked, shouldn’t we try it? Of course, she was right, but that knowledge didn’t help me breathe.

Neither did having an amazing surgeon in one of the best children’s hospitals in the country. Neither did the love and support of friends who would try to reassure me about how safe surgery and anesthesia are. Neither did my wife who held everything together when I couldn’t.

It wasn’t the mechanics of the surgery that occupied my thoughts. It was the idea of cutting into my little boy. It was the permanence of it all. It was the thing that can’t be undone.

We can wean off a medication that doesn’t work. We can stop the ketogenic diet. If years from now his seizures miraculously go away, we could stop everything and pretend that all the hard things about his childhood didn’t happen. There would be no signs, no trace. I could live in denial about how traumatized I was by this experience.

But the surgery forced me to confront the fact that these things aren’t going away. That the magical, unburdened life I wanted for my son is not going to materialize. That I can’t fix this or make it go away. That this is real, and that the future for him will include challenges brought on by his condition. That I’ve somehow failed him.

From the time the decision was made to the time they wheeled him away hopped up on “giggle juice”, I pushed my feelings down. I was practical but emotionless. I showed up for the appointments and answered the questions as he was prepped for surgery, but I wasn’t really there. I couldn’t be. I had to push it all down just to appear strong enough to make it through.

Even after his surgery was over, I had a hard time being present and acknowledging what had happened. I had a hard time looking at his scars. They were bigger than I thought they would be. Instead of small ones hidden by clothes, they’re long and visible. I looked away. I caught a glimpse of the device itself, raised under the skin and I looked away. It’s more than just being squeamish, it’s a spotlight of reality shining into my eyes and blinding me.

I worry that he’ll think I can’t look at him. I worry that he’ll feel like he did something wrong or that there is something wrong with him that is causing this reaction from me. I’m worried that I can’t get over my own hang-ups and be there for him when he needs me.

I tried to explain to him the feelings I was having but he didn’t understand. I didn’t, either, until I started to unpack them. But I still don’t know what to do with them. I want my acceptance to turn the spotlight that was blinding me into a beacon that brings me to him. But instead, it feels like the light has turned off. It’s not repelling me but it’s also not drawing me in. Instead, I’m left in the darkness trying to find my way.

But I can hear his voice. And I hear my wife’s voice. They’re calling me. And so I’m pushing through the blackness, the emptiness, to find my way back to them. It’s scary and impossibly hard. But I can hear them and they need me. I can hear them, and I don’t feel alone.

I’m on my way.