For a couple of months, I had noticed a few symptoms, such as occasional double vision. At an opera performance, I joked to my wife that some of the duets appeared as quartets. I also started noticing that I had some balance problems. It turns out I had a tumor on the cerebellum portion of my brain. Just a day and a half after it was discovered, I had five hours of brain surgery during which my neurosurgeon was able to remove the entire tumor. The good news is that it was benign.
I am writing this column just five weeks after my surgery. My recovery has been going well. I have a physical therapy regimen that is helping me regain my full balance. The lengthy incisions in my skull are healing nicely. My stamina is returning, although I still am pretty tired by the end of the day. I have no pain.
My doctors are pleased and surprised at how well I am doing (for a 69-year-old man). But I am not at all surprised. I know that the speed of my recovery is due, in large part, to the outpouring of love and support that I have received from family and friends. For many of us, knowing what to do or say to someone who is going through a serious medical issue or lengthy recovery can be difficult. In the course of my medical saga, here’s what I discovered helps a recovering person most—simple steps that anyone can do for a loved one or friend…
• Be there. You might assume that a recovering person wants peace and quiet. Not necessarily! Having people whom you love and trust around you is both helpful and reassuring. In my case, my wife was (and continues to be) incredibly strong. Having her at my side kept me calm. My daughter and son-in-law traveled hundreds of miles to be with me before, during and after my surgery. And one of my former college roommates traveled more than 200 miles to be there when I came out of surgery! My advice: If at all possible, be available to help a friend or loved one when a serious diagnosis is made. It’s very scary to get such news, but having loved ones and friends there for you is more powerful and calming than you may realize. Their presence is also invaluable when it comes to getting questions answered and making a postsurgical or treatment plan. If you’re making an in-person visit (contact every couple of weeks is good), just check in to make sure that the patient feels up to it.
• Stay in touch. Recovering from major surgery or a serious illness can be very lonely and frustrating. You don’t feel well. You have up and down days. Hearing from friends is more healing than just about anything a doctor prescribes. My advice: Even if you can’t physically be with your friend or family member, don’t be afraid to be in regular contact with him/her. It’s enough to send a short e-mail or card saying that you care. A phone call a few weeks after surgery (when most people assume the hard part is over) can serve as a great pick-me-up. Knowing that people care gives you a reason to work hard to recover.
• Be positive. When you make contact, it’s OK to say you’re sorry that the person is going through a medical ordeal, but quickly shift to a positive, upbeat tone. Don’t talk about your own illnesses. Let the person know that you are looking forward to seeing him for lunch, or some other outing, in the near future. My advice: Have a funny story or wonderful reminiscence to share. Laughter is a great healer—and believe me, it can make the recovering person’s day!