*Inset: With Dr Akagami at the Neurosciences Unit in VGH Nov 2018
How I Survived a Brain Hemorrhage
- by pj johnson Poet Laureate of the Yukon
The Incident: It hit me like a thunderbolt. On Tuesday evening November 6th 2018 I was sitting at my desk about to begin promotion of my new book when I suddenly suffered a brain hemorrhage. I was in the worst place I could possibly be. I was at home, I was alone, and I was 2,000 miles away from the nearest doctors and technology that could save my life.
One minute I was sitting at my desk in Whitehorse and the next thing I knew I was in a hospital somewhere down in Vancouver - it was four days later and they were telling me I’d had a brain hemorrhage. Apparently I had somehow managed to call a friend who called an ambulance and I was taken to the Whitehorse General Hospital where they said they almost lost me.
The emergency medical staff at the Whitehorse General made the decision to fire up the jet and air-lift me down to the Vancouver General Hospital Department of Neurosciences where Dr. Gary Redekop and his medical team quickly assessed my condition and took action.
God sent me a team of angels that day. They saved my life. If this ever happens to you believe me you want these people in your corner!
Life in the Neurosciences NICU: During my stay at VGH the support was incredible. The entire staff including the gentleman who mopped the floor were personable, kind, and positive. The nursing staff provided me with endless support and the kitchen staff even gave me grape jelly when it wasn’t on the menu because they knew I liked it. I was in the best place I could possibly be surrounded by the best possible professional care and equipment.
The Road Back: There were many challenges along the way. I have a condition called nonverbal learning disorder which basically means I don’t learn by reading. Suddenly I found myself further challenged. Just relating to objects could be difficult. I could see them, I knew they were there, but it was hard to relate. I remember seeing a coffeemaker sitting on a counter one day and thinking, “That’s a nice coffee-maker. Wonder if I like coffee?” Seems ludicrous to me now.
There were also some emotional setbacks. I cried easily and the least bit of dizziness triggered flashbacks. Suddenly I would remember exactly how I had felt the moment the hemorrhage hit and fear would shoot through me like a gunshot – fear that it was happening again.
Over time I began to realize the massive role that stress had played in making me sick and I knew I had to dial it back and allow myself time to heal.
Walking the Hallways & Winning: They had me on a lot of meds. At one point they handed me a handful and said "Swallow". One day I just stopped taking them and immediately I began to feel better.
I had lost a lot of weight and become frail from lying in a hospital bed. It hurt to move. I knew I needed to build up strength and regain my balance in order to walk safely. I began by walking slowly up and down the hallway, going a little further each day. On the bad days I reminded myself I was lucky to be alive. Most people don’t make it to one hospital – I made it to two. Giving up was not an option.
I persevered, walking the hallways everyday going a little further each time until one afternoon I made it all the way down to the hospital cafeteria. I considered that a major victory and even played a tune on the old grand piano sitting in the corner to celebrate. I knew then that I was on the road to recovery.
Occasionally as I wandered the hallways a well-meaning stranger would ask what condition had put me in the hospital. Whenever I answered I would see a quick flash of shock and something close to horror in their eyes. - Just the term ‘brain hemorrhage’ is enough to strike terror to the heart. Consequentially I have come to refer to my experience as ‘The Incident’.
Coming Home: It was strange coming home to the Yukon and having no memory of ever leaving it. However, as elated as I was to arrive back in my homeland, my homecoming was bittersweet. Six weeks before I had become ill my beautiful ten-year old yellow lab Marley had suddenly passed away and although I was happy to be home again, walking through the door without him there to greet me was heartbreaking. Suddenly my house felt empty, cold, and strangely silent.
Finding Doc: Soon after I returned home I heard about a litter of puppies that had just been born down in the BC interior and decided to have a little male flown up to the Yukon. The waiting was sheer agony but somehow I survived and two months later there he was, coming off the elevator in his little kennel at the Erik Nielsen International Airport in Whitehorse.
It was love at first sight. I was over the moon! I scarcely had time to unlatched the door of his crate when he jumped straight into my arms and held on for dear life. This adorable little puppy would go on to serve as my emotional support dog as I recovered. I named him ‘Doc’ because he is good medicine.
Doc with his favorite coat hanger
Moving Forward: As Poet Laureate of the Yukon and a passionate animal rights advocate I am often invited to speak at various public events. Before becoming ill I had agreed to perform at an event out in Toronto Ontario but now I questioned whether I should be traveling across Canada while still recovering from a brain hemorrhage. In the end I thought what have I got to lose and I flew out to Toronto. I discovered many more angels along the way. The pilot of the plane even escorted me to my hotel room. Now that’s what I call hospitality!
The engagement in Toronto was a success. The house was packed, the audience was attentive, and when I spoke about the plight of the northern sled dogs you could have heard a pin drop. I enjoyed connecting with old friends and made some new ones. In the end I was tired but happy. I considered that event a milestone in my recovery.
Giving Back: I have survived a lot in this life including being abandoned at birth and the horrors of life in the foster home from hell, the suicide of my brother Dwight at a young age, and being told I had cancer at the age of 21. I have struggled to cope with a learning disability and the effects of permanent radiation damage and I have endured the soul-searing misery of domestic violence.
At times I felt very alone. I thought I was the only one. If someone had told me back then that cancer was 100% survivable and that there was a life beyond it that could be long and richly fulfilling I might not have felt so alone. If there had been a resource available to support young people who struggle with emotional illness and depression perhaps my brother might not have felt so alone.
Telling my story is my way of giving back. Perhaps in sharing it I can offer a glimmer of hope to someone who might be going through some of the same things I did. If it helps just one person realise they are not alone in the journey it will have served its purpose.
Gratitude: I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude to the team of angels who were there for me when I needed them including: the first responders and emergency staff at the Whitehorse General Hospital, the pilots and attendants who flew me down from Whitehorse to the Vancouver General Hospital, to Dr. Gary J. Redekop and the entire staff of the Neurosciences Unit at VGH and to Air North for bringing me back home to the Yukon. If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here today. So from my heart to yours - Thank You!
How Am I Doing Today? In writing this story I have had to re-live it. I have faced it, I have learned from it, and I have freed myself from the trauma of it. I have been blessed with many new life lessons and acquired new perspective. I'm fired up and ready to take on the world - one day at a time. One minute at a time if necessary. I know who I am and I look to the future knowing that I'm not handicapped - I'm handi-capable!
I’ve come full circle. It’s time to move on.
A Footnote: This holiday season why not take a moment to give the gift of compassion by making a donation to the petition to help the northern sled dogs who so desperately need your help. Thank you on behalf of sled dogs everywhere. https://bit.ly/2tz4iGZ
How I Survived a Brain Hemorrhage by pj johnson Poet Laureate of the Yukon ©pj johnson 2019