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  • 1997.

    My book, Sightings had been published that Spring, and the Summer was fantastic….wonderful opening show of my limited edition series from the book, lots of sales and good reviews, I was on the boat a lot, kids were fine…I was on a roll. My then-marriage wasn’t much, but, in all life was dandy.

    I went into a local hospital to have my deviated septum (one motorcycle accident, one stupid punch from a drunken friend) fixed, and while under general anesthesia I woke up with an off-the-chart pain in my head…right in the center of my brain. Even typing this I still get a knot in my stomach thinking about it.

    Funny, as I write this Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” just cued up on iTunes….so, be warned, this story IS a serious ramble. But, since I’m typing this there’s an obvious happy-ending ahead.

    So, back to the account….the doc put me back under anaethesia, finished his work and sent me home. The next day was brutal…my head was incandescent with the pain and I couldn’t walk….my knees were shot and the head pain wasn’t my nose, it was inside my head..

    But I come from tough-it-out stock - both parental families possibly invented stiff upper lip – so the day was hell and the doctor advised (by phone) that he had done a lot of these surgeries….sort of a “man up” kind of response from him.

    The following day I hobbled out to the car and actually managed to drive myself in to see him. He was useless. Clueless. I drove home, a hurting and damaged unit.

    Next day, curled into a fetal tuck on the floor of my bedroom I called the hospital and said I was coming in and needed a neurologist.

    He had more than a clue. He ordered a cat scan and then, concerned by what he saw, a spinal tap (that was fun).

    Now on full alert, he immobilized and sedated me. Maine’s prime-time hospital, over in Portland, couldn’t accept me that night so I was ambulanced down the next morning. Strangely, I visually remember some of that ride.

    Checked in....MRI’s....I’ve had a cerebral hemorrhage and there’s another nice, big, fat aneurysm next to the one that blew out.

    Friends and family all kick into gear….where do we take him? Calls made, private flights offered…then, thank God, we learn that (go figure) Maine Medical Center has one of the best neurosurgical units in the country.

    I actually remember saying “let’s do it.”

    Funny thing, I love Maine so much that I really hate leaving here…and I know that factor was right in the forefront of my instant and easy decision to pass up Boston, NYC, Cleveland, etc.

    Next thing I remember is being wheeled in that night, November 20th, 1997…flat on my back, everybody trying to look upbeat, bright lights, swinging stainless doors into the OR.

    Last thing I remember was saying, "let’s go.”

    The primary surgeon, Lee Thibodeau, flat out pulled off a miracle.

    He had to get through stuff that generally surgeons cannot touch at risk of ruining certain brain function. A former naval flight surgeon once wrote in the New Yorker that working in that part of the brain is like landing a jet on an aircraft carrier in high seas, at night, lights off, in the fog.

    So, Lee is in there working away through the hole in my skull, kind of early in the process, and my blood pressure takes off…over 300 and climbing. Lee puts up his hands and backs away, the anesthesiologist hits the plunger on a catheter that has been run from my groin into my heart and shuts me down, literally “in a heartbeat.”

    Lee dives back in…and, to speed this story along, clips both aneurysms with little tiny “roach-clip” looking devices and they put the top back on the pumpkin.

    I then have two grand-mal seizures topped off by one additional smaller one. Apparently they thought that the first two were going to kill me.

    And then….the moment.

    They kept me in a low-level coma for a short time and then, when I first opened my eyes, the coolest thing….I remember – SO vividly – thinking, quite clearly,


    Wow............................I’m still alive.


    More than a few people have had That Moment…we are The Lucky Ones. We are in what I call The Club. More about that in a paragraph or three.

    So there I was, a mess to be sure, but one very happy and pleased boy. The stroke I had (I forgot to mention that) during surgery had done in my left eye and left hand and a few other things, but I was pleased as I’ve ever been.

    I still had my kids and so many people were just being so kind and sweet and caring….that was the overwhelming beauty/joy/love of it all.

    One little anecdote to accompany the lurid photograph I am sharing with you…once out of intensive care, people would come to visit (the hospital bent a few rules since I was a notoriously gregarious type) and, without fail, would open the door to the dark room and upon seeing what I was looking like, struggled to put on upbeat, happy faces as their real thoughts clearly ran along the lines of “Oh My God!”

    I would gesture to the chair to my right and they would gingerly approach the bed, sit…upon which the whoopie cushion certain nice nurses and other friends had once again (and again and again) inflated and hidden under the towel draped over the chair would rip out a wonderful, great, loud fart which, of course, would make me laugh and laugh and laugh as their faces registered shock. Reader’s Digest used to have a little joke column called “Laughter is the Best Medicine.” I’m here to tell you, it's true.

    So, that’s my little odyssey…sort of. But there are the lessons learned (and the aftermath), and that’s the real purpose of this saga.

    This is where I start to share with you the blessing I received…boundless gratitude. It goes like this….

    There was another little medical discovery post-brain surgery…I had a tumor on my starboard adrenal gland. A rare and nasty little beast, a pheochromocytoma, it was the cause of the two hypertensive events that had almost killed me. The gland had to come out, but my pheo did not like anesthesia, hence the two massive pressure spikes during the surgeries.

    The docs said that I would have five months to build back some strength to undergo the removal of the adrenal gland and that they were going to “change my body chemistry” for a while. I made what I thought was a clever remark about having done that through the late-60’s and early 70’s but they promised me that this time it would be considerably less fun.

    Jeeez, were they ever right.

    Anyway, I gotta wind this up, I just checked and I’m at 1220 words, but I’m on a roll with Lucinda Williams giving me the backbeat here…her fine song “It’s Over.” Not quite though, so just a bit more patience if you will.

    We shopped around for a surgeon who could/would do the pheo-op without using what I called the jaws-of-life approach wherein they remove ribs and, basically, disembowel the patient. I was feeling pretty much beat-up and wanted the gentler laparoscopic approach that, it turned out, was not the customary (read “safest”) way to go about this back then.

    Fast forward...the next in the long-line of miracles I had in all of this was that having researched possible surgeons from San Diego to London, we found that Maine Med had on staff a wonderful Welshman who was learning (and, happily, had successfully performed) the less invasive procedure. Revisit the I-hate-to-leave Maine mentality (above) and we were all set. The deed was done in May, 1998, and went perfectly.

    But the point I have skirted is that while speaking to a couple of other possible surgeons I was informed of the most amazing thing…”Peter, we in the medical community, here in the States and abroad, have never/ever seen your conditions present themselves except during autopsies."

    Ever.

    Yep, an honest-to-God miracle the way I figure it. And what the hell do you do with something like that in your life? There isn’t a day that goes by that - at some point – I am, however briefly, intensely aware of the miracle of it.

    And by “it” I mean life.

    Every. Single. Day.

    And we all intellectually know this to be true, but I had this blessing that woke my dumb ass up a little bit more than had been the case.

    "Cinnamon Girl" just came on and that reminds me that Neal Young went through a cerebral hemorrhage. He’s in the club.

    Anyway, one more thing…I am not a coffee drinker, possibly the only vice I never acquired. My “thing” every morning is a hot shower; God, I love them.

    The nurses at Maine Med were kind enough to acquiesce to my begging for a shower and would, one on either side, walk me to a little room where I could sit in a chair and just let the hot water pour all over me (a miracle unto itself). On my way to and from these showers I sort of got to know a few people in the step-down unit and it was there that I found The Big Lesson.

    There were numerous people in there who had it a LOT worse than me….sustained pain, terminal disease, loneliness, etc etc etc. And I saw that there seemed to be two sorts of people, there in the land of serious illness.

    There were those whose challenge/struggle was compounded by what was, in my mind, a greater malaise…that of bitterness, despair, anger, “why Me?” Double up the tragedy.

    And then there were those who seemed luminous to me. People in pain, dying, bad stuff, out of luck, facing the beyond. And those were the ones who had faith and hope and courage. There, in the bleak, sere landscape of the hospital was this astonishing beauty.

    They shone…I will never forget them.

    I would not wish what I went through on my worst enemy if I had one, yet I am beyond grateful for the experience.

    Yes, I was supremely lucky…no, I was blessed.

    How would I feel if I were still alive but, say, blind or paralyzed? I think about that every once in a while.

    But the phone rang a minute ago and it was family and I know the answer.

    Again.

    Family & friends...the ultimate blessing.

    So, at 1846 words I crank down the wheels and flaps and land this story….but not without saying that I now count Cowbird high among my blessings. I love this/our community.

    Thank you, thank you all, for your faith and hope and courage.

    Emmy Lou Harris just came on….”one Big Love.”

    p.s. special thanks, Sara, Alex, Barbara & Jonathan. And family.
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