Surviving Back to School

He was just five-years-old when I bent over to tell my son something at a friend’s house, and I suddenly collapsed at his feet.  It hadn’t even been 10 minutes from the time we arrived.  My friends said I went down slowly and they were initially confused at what had happened. When I hit the ground, they thought I was having a seizure. They turned me over on my side so I wouldn’t choke on my tongue. As two friends, who I just had met that night, tended to me, other friends called 911. They quickly recognized that I was agonal breathing, and it was not a seizure. Nothing about that moment seemed right.

In the background, my friends could hear my son saying, “What is wrong with my mom,  what is wrong with my mom?”  His friends tried to keep him occupied in the other room.

When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics worked on me immediately.  I came to for brief few seconds, and then I was unconscious again.  When the ambulance took me, one friend followed; the others stayed with my son.

That night, November 9, 2018, an aneurysm in my brain ruptured.  I never knew I had an aneurysm until that day.  After arriving at the emergency room, doctors clipped the aneurysm, and I survived my first brain surgery.  Even though I was responsive, surviving that operation marked the beginning of a long road ahead.  A couple of days after my clipping surgery, I took a sharp turn for the worse when my brain began to swell, and I had a stroke on the left side of my body.  I had to be rushed to my second emergency surgery to remove part of my skull, but not before my family was taken to a private room and told there was no way of knowing if I would survive this surgery.  I also had pneumonia, a kidney infection, and a blood and lung infection.  My doctors told my family that brain swelling is often expected, and so are infections, primarily due to the breathing tube I had placed, but it was still overwhelming for my family and me (not that I remember).

After surviving that surgery, my family waited patiently (or I’m assuming impatiently) by my bedside until I woke. On Thanksgiving Day of 2018, I finally woke up with no recollection of what happened. None whatsoever. Even now, memories of the hospital are a foggy nightmare that I struggle with wanting to remember, or leaving in the rearview mirror of my life.

One of the days after I woke up, I was shown a piece of paper that I wrote on. When I was responsive after the aneurysm was initially clipped (first surgery), I was asked to write on a piece of paper. Out of all the things I could have written, I wrote a note that said, “Bryce, Mommy loves you” with a heart drawn on it.

The stroke left me with mobility issues, memory difficulties, a contracted left arm, tremors on both hands, claw-like fingers on my left hand, and anxiety and depression that still creep up on me today.

I spent one month and ten days at the hospital and underwent a third surgery to replace the bone flap during that time. Then I moved to a Rehabilitation Hospital for two weeks, at which point I finally got to see my baby boy.  I’m a single mom and most of our days before my aneurysm burst were spent together, just my son and me. Each day that I wasn’t able to hold him or kiss him or look into his eyes, I felt that a little piece of me was dying on the inside, and I feared I wouldn’t be able to put myself back together after enough pieces had fallen.

When I finally came home in January 2019, what I thought would be a simple transition, came crashing on me like a ton of bricks when I realized anxiety and depression controlled my every move.

I worried and wondered what would happen if I fell again. Would I survive this time?  Would my son see me fall?  I spent many nights crying myself to sleep, as I prayed for another day, another hour, another minute with my son.

I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only one feeling anxious. When my son had to go to Pre-K one day after I was home,  he told me that he didn’t want to go. My son always loved going to school.  Usually, drop-offs consisted of a quick side kiss because he was so excited to be with his friends and teachers. When I asked him why he didn’t want to go to Pre-K, he started crying and said, “I want to stay here with you.” He then told me that he was scared that something would happen to me while he was at school and that I wouldn’t be home when he returned.

That night, I held him tighter, longer, and understood for the first time that this rupture didn’t happen to just me.  This sweet, caring child of mine should be worrying about Legos he can’t build or toys he wants, but instead, he’s anxious about his mother not being there when he comes home from school that next day.

That next day, my mother carefully helped me into the passenger side of my car, and we picked up my son from school. I couldn’t wait to see his little legs running as fast as possible and his face light up when he realized I was in the car and I would be home with him after school.  Boy – did he run quickly and scream out,  “MOMMYYYYY!”

After that, his anxiety didn’t fully go away overnight, and neither did mine.

By the end of 2018, I had survived the clipping, surgery to remove part of the skull (for swelling), and surgery for the bone flap.  In February 2019, I faced a significant setback that led to more operations. My own bone flap became infected, and I encountered more complications  and then another six surgeries throughout the year.

With each surgery, I lost a little part of me.  I lost faith, my anxiety worsened, and I began to ask, “why me.” I felt stranded in a dark bottomless hole of depression that I was so desperately trying to claw my way out of, but couldn’t. Doctors then removed my skull cap, and I had to wear a helmet for seven months until my head would be ready for the synthetic bone my neurosurgeon would one day place.

I needed three different tissue expanders placed to prepare my skull for a synthetic bone. But the difference was that now, with each surgery to place the tissue expanders, I had the opportunity to talk to my son about it, unlike the first couple of surgeries, which were emergencies.

For each of those surgeries that summer, I had to face my son at his bedside, grab his little hands, wrap them gently in mine, look into his innocent baby-blue eyes and bravely tell him that unfortunately, mommy needed to go to the hospital.   And worse, mommy wouldn’t be there the next day to take him to Pre-K. I would promise him that I would be ok. But I wasn’t entirely sure. All I knew is that I had to take on his anxiety, in addition to my own. I needed to do that for him. I desperately wanted to take his worries about me away so that he could instead worry about who he would play tag with at recess or who he would trade lunches with the next day.  I did not want him to focus on whether he was going to see his mommy again.

Telling him I had to go to the hospital yet again never got easier – no matter how many times I did it.  It was usually followed by “why.” But in one of my earlier surgeries, it was followed by, “But why, mommy, you’re better now.” In his eyes –  helmet, hand tremors, and all, I was better.

As hard as that year was, I made sure I was there for him, the best I could. I never missed a soccer game, a school meeting, and even went to his Pre-K Prom as his date (yes, there was a mini-prom for the kids)!  And on May 12, 2019, helmet and all, I attended his Pre-K Graduation.

To some, it might not be a big deal. I mean, it’s just Pre-K, right?  But for someone who came so close to not having that moment – it’s everything. I cheered and clapped and smiled, cried, and yelled out his name as if he was walking across the stage – you would have thought he was graduating from Harvard! But I didn’t care – I was there. I was there every minute, every smile, every picture, every hug, and even every “Oh mom, stop, no more pictures” moment.  I was alive, and I was there with him.

As his first day of Kindergarten approached, so did the pending news of my synthetic bone placement surgery. The three different tissue expanders in my skull that each week had painfully been filled in with saline were all for this moment. This surgery. This synthetic bone. That bone that would make me whole again and would allow me to retire my helmet.

The helmet felt like a lighter bicycle helmet with less padding in it. It was a nuisance to remember to put it on and keep it on.  But, I made it the best I could. I’m a former pageant queen, so one of my pageant friends told me it was like my new crown – so I embraced it! I bought crown stickers and jewels for it. Strangely,  after I didn’t have to wear it anymore, I felt naked without it, as if I left something important behind.  And it now proudly sits on my bookcase with my other crowns and banners.

“Mommy, I’m so excited for Kindergarten. Will you take me?” he asked me one day. I told him that I would, but like before – I wasn’t entirely sure. I was praying that my synthetic bone placement surgery date wasn’t the first day of school or a day too close.  And if it would have been, I had made up my mind that I would reschedule and wait longer if I had to. Despite everything, there was no way I would miss his first day of school.

Thankfully, my surgery did not overlap with his first day of Kindergarten, and I took him to his first day of school. I proudly embarrassed him as I walked him to his classroom, took pictures, and kissed him. But after that first day, that meant that for the eighth time, I had to tell my son that mommy had to go to the hospital again soon, and this time, she would be gone longer.

That night he asked me, “Mommy, are you scared?” This time, I told him the truth. “Yes. But I’m brave because of you, and I know that God is watching me.” He looked at me, with huge eyes, and said, “God is watching you? Like the Mona Lisa? Her eyes look at you, no matter where you go.” I immediately started laughing. It turns out that day, he had learned about the Mona Lisa in Art class. His comment brought me the laughter that I needed, and the comfort of knowing that I hadn’t wholly shattered his precious innocence.

I did have that synthetic bone placed on September 9, 2019. By this time, my tremors had disappeared, and I was in Occupational and Orthopedic Therapy three times a week. I could finally stretch out and freely move my left arm. But most importantly, I was playing with my son, making him school lunches, doing household things, walking, showering, and going to the bathroom all on my own now.

Then, on October 23, 2019 (nearly one year from the original rupture), another setback. A scab fell off from my incision, and you could see a tiny piece of the bone. My neurosurgeon immediately dropped everything to put me on his schedule to talk options.

The options were limited: see if the plastic surgeon could help or take the bone out and start from scratch. The thought of starting all over again was a pain that I wasn’t ready to feel. I immediately lost it in the doctor’s office. I couldn’t control the tears running down my face, like a storm that was causing chaos and couldn’t be controlled.

That day, my neurosurgeon gave me what I selfishly believe to be, the pep talk of his career!

That wasn’t the first time I cried with my neurosurgeon.  The first time I cried was when he told me about my infection in February 2019. That time, as I cried in his office, I saw his eyes filling up with tears as well. But this time, he took my hand in his strong and gentle surgical hands and with the most calm and serene voice said, “Cynthia, you need to focus on what you have. You could have died. But you didn’t. You could have been paralyzed on your left side. But you’re not. And that side is getting better and better each day. You need to focus on your son. He needs you. This is just one setback. Think of all that you have already overcome, and we’ll get through this, like the others. Just stay focused on your son.” He hugged me, and I was reminded that I was in the best hands I could have asked for. I wasn’t just another patient to him, I was Cynthia Martinez, a mother, and he wasn’t only a surgeon, but a human being who genuinely cared.

That next day, I had an appointment with the plastic surgeon, another fantastic, wonderfully-skilled man in my long list of doctors whose office I have cried in as well (I do a lot of that with my doctors). So on October 25, 2019, I was scheduled for my ninth surgery to fix my incision. The synthetic bone was left in place, the incision was repaired, and most importantly, I saw my son off from school in the morning and was there for him when he got back to hear all about the Mona Lisa.

To say this road has been tough doesn’t seem right because it was so much more than that. It felt like the world was against me.  It was physically painful and emotionally draining, yet I decided to find triumphs in every corner.  It had to make a decision, and I decided to find the triumph. That’s not to say that the bad days were few and far between and that they weren’t as ugly as heck – because they were.

Today, do I consider myself fully recovered? No. My left side is still a little weak and lacks coordination. And, I also have another unruptured aneurysm being monitored by another amazing human being that physically embraced my father in the waiting room when they didn’t know I was going to make it – and he just so happens to be my Vascular Neurosurgeon.

Although I don’t believe my recovery will entirely end, I consider the NOW to be an overall triumph. In December 2019, I went back to my full-time job after 13 months of being gone. I was met with open and thankful hearts from not only my colleagues in my office but from a global company that did so much for my family and I during my healing.

In January 2020, I started driving again and was discharged from my therapies and my doctors.

Thanks to my mother, sister, dad, step-mom, aunt, uncle, and many, many more family members, my son and I didn’t have to face this tragic part of our lives alone.

They were my arms when I couldn’t hold him, they were my comforting words when I couldn’t speak to him, and they were his strength when I couldn’t bear it. And they took care of my son to make sure he didn’t miss one day of school, soccer practice, or swim class during my recovery.

My son’s first year in public school wasn’t easy for either of us. We were met with personal learning challenges. And then as if it wasn’t hard enough, in March, the global pandemic made things harder.  Like so many people in today’s world, we had to juggle homeschooling, working from home, and not being able to leave our homes.

Through this time, I’m reminded that my anxiety and depression are not entirely behind me and neither are my physical deficits that linger. I have broken down in front of my son, and he has comforted me. But I have also picked myself back up through my worst.  I have apologized to him when I unnecessarily overreacted and lost my temper, accepted his apologies to me when he acted unkind or out of line, and tried my best to teach him by showing him.

In September 2020, he will start 1st Grade, and it would be silly of me to think that things will go smoothly. However, I do hope that he continues to work hard, not to give up when met with challenges, to meaningfully apologize when he’s wrong, to forgive and whole-heartily accept apologies. I also hope that he is able to lean on others and pick himself up when he thinks he is down for the count. And I hope that he will always triumph forward!

These are lessons that can’t fully be taught in the classroom but can be taught with leading by example as parents.

Click the photo to learn more about Cynthia Martinez.