Thursday, May 31, 2012

Four works of art inspired by an unwelcome growth in my head

There are some downsides to palling around primarily with artistic types – everyone’s broke, it’s hard to pull together a pick-up basketball team, your social media streams are clogged with Kickstarter requests, etc. – but there are plenty of positives as well. For instance, when I was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor last month, I was greeted with a humbling outpouring of love and charity from my friends and family. Support came in the form of food, flowers, cards, good vibes and, of course, artwork.

In the interest of spreading the love, here are four of the wonderful works of art inspired by my bout with brain surgery.

  • I was initially diagnosed with a pituitary edenoma, which is a kind of benign tumor. Once the surgeons had me opened up, they discovered it was actually something called a Rathke’s cleft cyst, which has virtually the same symptoms and side-effects of its tumescent sibling but is both a little bit grosser and easier to recover from. I mention this because my friend Christopher “Patch” Conner’s immediate response to reading the phrase “pituitary edenoma” was to run it through an anagram generator. He came up with “a nude tiara poem.” A few hours later he wrote one. A few days later he recruited his guitarist friend Oren Rabinowitz to set it to music and record it. It’s a coffee shop head-bobber for sure.

A Tiara Nudity Poem/Ira's Brain Tumor by Oren Rabinowitz on Grooveshark

  • The multi-pronged creative force that is Oswald Hobbes also found a musical muse in my head, crafting an ambient soundscape called "Is Something on Your Mind, Ira." It kind of puts me in mind of Goblin’s soundtrack work from the ‘70s, which is of course a heck of a compliment.

  • Oswald and his colleague/familiar Joe Gibson also invited me onto their delightful Audio Assault podcast, where we winnowed away an hour or so talking about brain tumors, Lou Reed and splatter movies. I also talk about what I wore to prom, the time I cut my toe half off and my personal bathing preferences. Must-hear stuff across the board, obviously.

  • My godfather Jeff Wilcox – a working visual artist for four decades – is a reliable source of wonderful, weird imagery. He regularly posts photos from his Thrift Store Gallery series, in which he finds compelling objects at his local thrift store and juxtaposes them in intriguing ways. His latest was dedicated to me. It finds a young Justin Timberlake trouncing a circus clown and a hobo sailor in a creep-off for the ages. It is a thing of ineffable beauty.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The story of my pituitary tumor, as told by 'Simpsons' screengrabs

A few Thursdays ago I woke up feeling moderately hungover. This struck me as odd, since I hadn’t even had my usual beer with dinner the night before. When the feeling didn’t fade over the course of the day, I presumed I was coming down with whatever dread malady my son had brought home from day care this time.

I woke up Friday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt. It was a constant, pulsating ache that ran straight through my head from temple to temple.

The headache lasted all weekend and kept intensifying until finally I went to the after hours clinic on Sunday. The doctor there prescribed me some Vicodin and told me to see my regular physician if it hadn’t improved the next day. On Monday my family doctor examined me again, gave me a shot of pain medication and sent me for an MRI. By Tuesday the headache had faded somewhat, but I was still shambling around my office dizzy, queasy and on the verge of collapse.

That afternoon my doctor called me down to his office, where he explained that my MRI had revealed a macroedenoma – a small, benign tumor growing on my pituitary gland. It was located just behind my sinus cavity, pressing up against my optic nerve.

The next day I went to see a neurosurgeon (an actual neurosurgeon!), who confirmed the diagnosis and reassured me that these tumors were almost invariably benign and relatively easy to remove. It was about as routine as brain surgery can be, in other words. Still, it was imperative to have it operated upon quickly. Left unchecked, an adenoma can cause permanent damage to the optic nerve and play hell with the brain’s hormone production. Potential side effects include blindness and – no kidding – gigantism.

I’ve navigated a battery of physicians over the past couple of weeks, including neurosurgeons, optometrists, endocrinologists, opticians, family practitioners, an ear-nose-throat specialist and something called a “tumor nurse.” I’ve been uniformly impressed with their knowledge and professionalism. They’ve boosted my confidence to the point where I can hardly imagine anything going wrong.

The procedure, as I understand it, involves drilling into my upper gumline and slicing out the tumor, then plugging the hole in my sinuses with a chunk of muscle tissue extracted from my thigh. As unpleasant as that sounds, it beats the alternative method, in which doctors go in through the nose. That often leaves the patient with distended nostrils and an unsightly flap of septum hanging down. Heck, my neurosurgeon says that when he started doing this 35 years ago, the standard was to open up the front of the skull, lift up the brain and carve out the tumor. I can at least be thankful that they’re not doing anything that invasive.

When all that’s over with, they drill a little hole in my back to shunt off overflow spinal fluid, which can build up and cause complications following this kind of surgery. Then it’s off to a hospital bed for three to seven days of recovery. And no, sadly, they don’t let me keep the tumor after they’re done.

Once I’m out of the hospital, I should be back to relative normalcy within a week or so, although I have to refrain from strenuous physical activity for the next couple of months. That’s a real bummer, as I had planned to spend much of the summer running, playing basketball and chasing after my toddler. I do have to go in for extensive follow-ups, and if it turns out they didn't get all of the tumor on the first pass they'll likely have to zap my pituitary with radiation. I figure that would give me about a 75% chance of developing Incredible Hulkism.

Still, when all is said and done, it beats any of the alternatives. I’m just grateful that it’s nothing more serious. This is pretty much the best-case scenario when you get a call saying an MRI of your head has turned up something troubling. I’m also thankful that I have such a loving and supportive network of family and friends. I’m a little embarrassed by the outpouring of love and well-wishes I’ve received since this started. I’m not complaining, though, not by a long shot. Come Monday evening, you folks will have made me the happiest man in United Hospital’s recovery ward.