My friend Leila and the fight of her life

“Jenny, I had a seizure.”

Her email says to call her as soon as possible, so I do, not even waiting to get home, not walking out to the parking lot where my cell phone might have a bar or two of service. Just grab my work phone and dial, long distance be damned. She’s not the type to get dramatic about serious things, and from the terseness of the email, I know it’s serious. Serious enough, as it turns out, to bring her to Johns Hopkins a for a consultation with a neurosurgeon and a neuro-oncologist. Her appointment is next week, and she needs a place to stay, a staging ground for the first battle of this war on cancer, and there was no way in the world I could say no to her. I just hope that my home is comfortable enough for her and her family. I need to wash some blankets for them, I need to clean the kitchen.

****

Everything is ready, and they’re here. Big hugs at the door. They’re so tired. I’ve never met her sister before but she’s wonderful. She’s going to be vicious against this tumor, I can tell. She’s got names, numbers, appointments lined up with everyone who is anyone in neurooncology. It’s a tense night, though, and I can see that Leila is scared. I wasn’t going to go with them to Hopkins in the morning but I ask if she wants me to call in sick so I can be with her and all she can do is nod and bite her lip, and I hug her so hard and I don’t want to let go. How dare this happen to her? Cancer has no right to hurt her, to scare her, to threaten her.

****

The doctors are kind and the best in the world. They have decided that surgery has to happen, as soon as possible. Next week. It’s growing, and it needs to be stopped. Everyone is optimistic about the surgery because the tumor is in a safe, quiet place in her non-dominant hemisphere, and her language, coordination, intelligence, and personality should all be spared. Thank goodness. The MRI images are up on a glowing screen, and the neurologist scrolls back and forth, back and forth, showing us all of its dimensions. She asks him which colleague he would want in his brain if it was his tumor, and he only hesitates a minute before giving us a name. Within ten minutes, this world renowned neurosurgeon is in the room talking to Leila and making arrangements. He’s not the one we came to see, but he’s more experienced, and none of us want a beginner to work on this case. He looks like Bill Nye the Science Guy. He makes a rocket science vs brain surgery joke in reference to Leila’s physics degree. I like him.

****

It’s a beautiful day. A gorgeous sunny day, and she’s on a cold table, under bright lights, with her brain exposed under the hands of a surgeon. It’s obscene, to have horrible things happen on pretty days.

****

Surgery was a success. She’s still herself, answering questions and then demanding answers of her own. Did they get it all? Were there complications? What grade is it? Define this enemy so we can fight it. I can’t get to her while she’s in the hospital and I feel guilty, but I’m at work at my own hospital’s blood bank where we’re down two employees and trying to keep our own patients alive, and the visiting hours are short and impossible for me to make use of. Her sisters are with her, and they are keeping me up to date. They’re not giving her enough pain medication, not giving her anything for sleep, for anxiety, because they are waking her up for a neurological exam every hour or two and the drugs might mask complications. It’s barbaric. You were inside her head. You cut through her skull. Let her sleep. Let her heal. She will need her strength to fight.

****

She’s out of the hospital so quickly I think it can’t possibly be safe, but she will sleep better, eat better, here. The verdict is in and it’s a terrible enemy to be fighting, a Grade 3 astrocytoma. Hard decisions must be made about how and where to start the next steps. Now comes the radiation, the chemotherapy, the nausea, the weakness and the wigs. But who can she trust with her life, with her brain, her mind? There are so many drugs, so many new clinical trials with so many risks, and so many experts willing to take her case. How can a person make this decision?

****

I have known and loved this woman for years. We went to school together and we’ve always stayed in touch. She’s 31 years old and speaks three languages, plays the piano, and has explored a dozen countries in hiking boots by day and 4-inch heels by night. She loves horseback riding, French literature, Sex and the City, and ballroom dancing. She wrote a mystery novel and is editing it to submit it for publication, and she’s supposed to defend her thesis in November for her PhD in nuclear physics. She has never said no to any crazy adventure. She’s loud, sexy, and unapologetic, and charms her way into and out of all sorts of trouble. And now she’s fighting for her life, because some tumor decided to make itself comfortable in her beautiful brain.

I’m sad. I’m scared. I’m angry. I know it’s nothing compared to the amplified emotions she and her family must be feeling, but she’s been at the back of my mind since that phone call and I know that I will think of her every day now as she fights this astrocytoma. Fuck cancer. It’s not fair.

She’s trying to raise funds through an online program called FundRazr, to help pay for the medical treatments that are not being covered by her insurance. I’m sharing the link here not necessarily in hopes that you will donate, but in hopes that you can share the link with others and help her that way. She has also started a blog to tell her story, and I think you should read it. Please share it.

2 thoughts on “My friend Leila and the fight of her life

  1. Gingy

    I gave a little. I’m so sorry your friend has to go through this. Can I help? Do you think she wants an awesome little hat to cover where they had to shave her head?

    Reply
  2. Mrs. Loudshoes

    I’m sorry to hear all that you and your friends are going through…it’s so hard to see someone you love frightened and uncertain. Amazing things happen every day with cancer treatments, I hope this is one of them.

    Reply

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