Every day I wake up is a good day. These are the words I live by. They help give me perspective and are a constant reminder of the day that I wanted to close my eyes forever and just make the pain stop.
By Jeff Nunn | Photos by David Harrison
IN LATE APRIL 1998, I was a healthy 25-year-old with a great job who played in a softball league, basketball league and a golf league. I had just signed a contract to build my first house and felt like I was on top of the world, even though I had just started working odd hours as I transitioned into a new work schedule.
When my eyes became watery and red, as if I had the beginning of pink eye, and I started having headaches and sleepless nights, I chalked it up as an adaption to the change in my schedule and assumed it would all go away as soon as I became acclimated to a new routine.
One evening after a late work night, I rushed out to a party to meet up with friends. I had a few adult beverages and stayed out too late, and got about an hour or so of sleep before my father picked me up around 5 a.m. to play in a golf scramble.
My allergies can give me fits on the course, so I took an allergy pill just before he arrived. On the way to the course, I became nauseous and lightheaded, and asked my father to pull over so I could get sick. Despite his concern, I assured him it was the fact that I’d had my last drink only about a few hours before and had also just taken an allergy pill. I felt certain that combination made me feel this way and would wear off soon.
Once we arrived at the course, I had a Sprite and chewed a piece of bubblegum. The nauseous feeling subsided and the lightheadedness nearly did, too. We played about three holes, but I wasn’t playing very well and I felt a little off balance. As we pulled up to the fourth hole, I got so dizzy I fell when I tried to get out of the cart. I couldn’t even stand up. My teammates razzed me a bit about staying out too late the night before and not being able to handle my liquor. I, too, assumed that was exactly the problem.
I rode in the cart for the next few holes before asking my father to take me back to the car so I could sleep it off while everyone else finished golfing. After the scramble, dad took me back to the apartment and helped me climb to the second floor. He asked if I wanted to go to the hospital, but I assured him I would be fine after I got some rest.
The next morning, I tried to get out of bed. I fell flat on my face.
I had absolutely zero balance and could not stand or walk. Using my arms, I dragged myself to the phone and called my mother. She and my youngest brother rushed over to get me. My brother carried me down the two flights of stairs and put me in the car.
BY THE TIME WE REACHED THE HOSPITAL, I couldn’t even hold up my head. The hospital staff greeted us at the emergency room entrance and placed me in a wheelchair. I must have looked pretty badly because they rushed me straight back.
The on-call doctor said I had an extreme ear infection, and after a bag of fluids I should be good to go. But after the bag of fluids, I tried to stand up and fell straight to the ground. The doctor quickly ordered more tests, including a CT scan and MRI. I was leaking fluid from the back of my brain. The neurosurgeon on call ordered an angiogram.
The test revealed I had a tumor on my brain stem – but the doctor couldn’t tell if it was cancerous or not. He could only tell us that surgery would be required.
I was immediately admitted and placed in the intensive care unit (ICU). Further tests were needed to devise a plan of attack on the tumor. Surgery was scheduled for the end of the week, which just happened to be Oaks Day 1998.
I had bought a box near the finish line for Oaks and was upset that I had to miss it for a stupid surgery. I had no idea how serious my situation was. I just wanted to get through with it so I could at last watch the Kentucky Derby.
During the times that I felt halfway decent and was allowed visitors, most of the conversations I remember were about the Oaks and Derby. I really liked a horse named Indian Charlie that year. My mom, on the other hand, suggested everyone bet on Real Quiet because this week was the quietest I had ever been in my life, and he was the stablemate of the horse that I liked. (For the record, Real Quiet won the Kentucky Derby that year.)
The ICU was not a great place to be. I could only have visitors every so often and in short increments. At times, it was lonely and the pain grew worse every second. It seemed about every 10 minutes a nurse would come in and stick me or ask a bunch of questions.
After a couple of days, I had so many IVs in my arms they ran out of veins, so they sutured a line into my neck. I also wasn’t getting enough nutrients because I couldn’t hold any food down, so they ran a feeding tube through my nose into my stomach. (I didn’t like that, so I ripped it out.)
As the hours passed, the pain kept getting increasing. When I was awake, all I would do was dry heave, so I tried to stay asleep as much as possible. Two days before the surgery, the pain reached a point that I, selfishly, asked God to just let me close my eyes and never wake up so I wouldn’t be in pain anymore. I closed my eyes and went into a deep sleep. Everything went blank, and then a funny thing happened: I slowly opened my eyes and as the light hit my pupils, I saw my family. Suddenly, I realized life was worth fighting for, and that’s exactly what I was going to do – fight with everything I had. I had so much to live for and so much more that God wanted me to do.
THE MORNING BEFORE THE SURGERY, two priests came in to bless me. One said something about anointing of the sick and the other read about last rites. It was only then that I realized just how serious my condition was. Before that moment, I had the mindset that I was sick, the doctor would fix me and then it would be business as usual. Boy, was I way off.
THE NIGHT BEFORE SURGERY, I became more nauseous than I had ever been. The doctors thought I was anxious, but if you know me, then you know I don’t get anxious. I have always felt like I could handle anything. I was wrong.
Shortly after receiving an injection of anti-nausea medication, I had a feeling that somebody was stepping on my throat and it became hard to breathe. I was choking and trying to call for help. Sirens, bells and whistles started going off, and people were frantically running around trying to figure out what to do. It was complete chaos as I gasped for air.
My mom yelled, “He’s allergic to the anti-nausea medicine and needs some Benadryl!” But a nurse kept saying I was getting 98-percent oxygen and would be fine. She was wrong.
Moments later, the anesthesiologist injected Benadryl into my IV and within seconds, the swelling went down, my throat opened up and I was able to breathe. I was allergic to the medicine causing my throat to swell. (Moral of that story: Mom knew best.)
Surgery day finally arrived and as the nurses came to take me down to prep, it seemed the stroll from ICU to surgery was about 25 miles. My parents walked next to my bed the whole way until we got to the doors. As they swung shut, I looked back through them to get one last look, unsure if that would be the last time I ever saw my parents or experience all of things I’d dreamed of doing.
I underwent about eight and a half hours of surgery, after which the doctor came out and told my parents they had removed 96 percent of the tumor, but it was too dangerous to remove any more. The tumor, officially called pilocytic astrocytoma, was a slow-growing, typically non-cancerous tumor that usually doesn’t spread.
However, mine had every characteristic of a cancerous tumor and the removed tissue would be sent to Johns Hopkins Hospital to be tested.
I REMEMBER WAKING UP in complete darkness. Time was a blur, and as the hours passed, I started seeing the outlines of friends and family. I couldn’t see details of their faces, but I knew who they were. I didn’t tell anybody about my poor vision, but my family figured it out when they realized I had not turned on the television to watch ESPN’s Sportscenter for two days. Apparently, the post-surgery swelling was pushing on my optic nerve and causing vision problems. The doctors believed my vision would be fully restored as the swelling went down. While my vision improved, I never fully restored my 20/20 vision.
The post-surgery swelling was the root of many physical problems. It was so intense it snapped the seventh cranial nerve, which caused the left side of my face to be paralyzed. I had no control over movement on my face. The left side of my mouth drooped, and I couldn’t close my left eye. I had no idea this had occurred, but I noticed the look on my visitors’ faces and could tell something wasn’t right.
Eventually, I was told about the paralysis and was given a mirror. My stomach dropped when I saw myself. I was devastated that I would never smile again.
While I was unaware about the paralysis in my face, I was fully aware of the paralysis and weakness of my left arm and leg. I was told as the swelling went down, I would regain movement in both. Over the next three weeks of therapy, I was able to move my arm and leg, but I lost all motor skills and was unable to walk. I worked and worked so hard in therapy, but it’s incredibly difficult to not be able to perform the simplest of tasks, especially since I had done them most of my life. All I wanted to do was get better and go home.
In fact, I begged and begged to go home and was granted a weekend pass, but my parents had to take tests of their own to prove they were able to take adequate care of me. They passed and I got to go home for a night.
AFTER I RETURNED TO THE HOSPITAL, I was told I couldn’t stay any longer because insurance said I reached my limit. So after about a month in the hospital, I was released because of my insurance limits, even though the doctor said I wasn’t ready to be released. While insurance would no longer cover my hospitalization, it would cover sending therapists to my parents’ house. Mom quit her job, and I stayed with my parents until I was as good as I could be.
I had a speech, occupational and physical therapist come to the house what seemed to be ever other hour, but really it wasn’t quite that frequent. They believed that I would learn how to walk again within a year, but I worked so hard I quickly went from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane and after four months, I was walking unassisted.
I still had to think in my head: left foot, right foot with every step, but eventually it became natural. I was back on the golf course in October, but I had terrible balance and no strength. I could only hit a 3 wood about 100 yards.
I continued therapy and became stronger. I still had weakness and poor motor skills in my whole left side. My balance wasn’t great and my face remained paralyzed on the left side.
I had to face the fact that this was as good as it gets. I would have to adapt my life and learn how to do things differently than I had done for the past 25 years. I went back to work in December and continued to build up my strength.
IN THE FOLLOWING YEAR, I found a doctor who took a nerve from my tongue and plugged it into the seventh cranial nerve spot in hopes that I would regain animation in my face, which would also allow me to close my eye so that it wouldn’t dry out, which might result in completely losing the eye. There was no guarantee that it would work, but it was a risk I was willing to take. The surgery helped restore some symmetry to my mouth and allowed me to close my eye enough to keep it naturally lubricated so I wouldn’t lose it, but I still had no control over movement of the left side of my face. The lasting effects are similar to having a permanent case of Bell’s Palsy.
In July 2001, I started having vision problems accompanied with headaches. I went to the eye doctor to see if I needed new glasses and through a routine eye exam, he saw a tumor and immediately called my neurosurgeon. Within the hour, I found myself in a MRI machine where it was confirmed that the tumor had grown back.
The doctor said that within three years the tumor had already grown back to the size it was when he originally diagnosed me. This time, he said, we must remove 100 percent of the tumor and being a quadriplegic was a very real possibility. And there was a high chance I would not survive the surgery.
I had a lot to think about and a decision to make. I decided I would not subject my loved ones to watching me go through surgery again and possibly taking care of me for the rest of my life.I would just continue living my life until God called me home. My family could grieve and then move on with their lives without the burden of caring for me. I know they wouldn’t hesitate to care for me, but it’s not fair to them, so I decided against surgery and to just let fate take its course.
IN AUGUST 2001, I found a doctor who was willing to try a surgery on me that was not commonly performed on brain tumors. It is called stereotactic radiosurgery, which is a noninvasive surgery that basically delivers a massive dose of radiation to destroy a tumor. It won’t remove the tumor, but the hopes are that the radiation damages the DNA of tumor cells enough so the tumor cells lose their ability to reproduce.
Because this surgery was not common with brain tumors, I had to sign papers saying my family couldn’t sue if I didn’t survive. Today, this surgery is fairly common.
Thus far, the surgery has been a success. I have not had any complications, although there remains a spot on my brain that I have monitored about every two years.
Since the last surgery, my life has changed in many ways.
I’ve dealt with – and internally overcome – my physical handicaps. I hated my half smile and would not allow anyone photograph me. I couldn’t go watch my friends play softball because it killed me to not be able to get out there and compete with them.
Yet, now, I’ve come to terms with who I am and accepted me for me. I’m still the same person on the inside. I had to cut a few people out of my life who couldn’t see through the outside, but I also gained quite a few friends who didn’t know me before my surgeries and physical changes. They accepted me for who I am and what I believe in.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, I met a woman who didn’t see any of my imperfections. She only saw me for who I am. She didn’t care about my money (or lack thereof) or anything superficial. She fell in love with me as I did her. Two children later, we will celebrate out five-year wedding anniversary on a special family vacation in July. She – along with my closest friends and family – has inspired me and has me in a place where I am ready to continue to grow, learn and do whatever I want without worrying what anyone thinks or says.
I have dreams and goals and I am striving for them. Along with writing for Extol Sports, I have been writing, taking photos and making highlight videos as a senior contributor for Cardinal Sports Zone (www.cardinalsportszone.com). I am grateful for these opportunities as they are just the beginning of what I am capable of doing.
IT HAS NOW BEEN 19 YEARS since my first surgery. While most of us in this area celebrate our love for horses at this time, I also celebrate my love for life. Don’t get me wrong, I love the horses and Derby was already a special time for me, but now I celebrate the anniversary of my second chance at life and the reminder to always be thankful for it, appreciate it, enjoy it, but most importantly, live it.