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The Tattoo I May Surprise My Brain Surgeon With During My Craniotomy

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My friend and I were joking yesterday about tattoos.

For some reason, it felt really important to get a tattoo before my last brain surgery. Something I could physically see or hold onto — something with predictability or permanence in a life that felt too unpredictable and chaotic and disordered.

(I should mention I have been to a tattoo parlor many times since my sophomore year of college actually, with every intention of getting a tattoo and have never been able to decide on a design. I have a hard time making decisions. My husband is truly a saint for putting up with this — not the tattoo design part, but just with me in general — you know, indecisive in life.)

I had this idea of a tattoo of a simple swallow, a bird that has a lot of significance in my life going back to my childhood. But maybe not even in color for the tattoo — just the silhouette. And see, swallows mate for life, so there was the tiny part of talking my husband into getting a swallow tattoo as well. We could match. I was thinking on my left wrist. I know, predictable and cliché, but I wanted to be able to see it post-op as I was laying around recovering.

The turn-around between the January 2016 brain hemorrhage and the February 2016 surgery was too fast. I mentioned the idea of a tattoo a few times to the medical folks preparing me for surgery, and they collectively cautioned it was not a great idea. “Poor timing. Too much risk of infection,” they would say. “You’ll have to wait until you’re completely recovered at this point. Your craniotomy is just too soon.”

Well, that was sure disheartening. My brain surgery was so soon that I could’t even get a go-be-brave tattoo beforehand for risk of infection affecting the procedure?

Damn. No brave, committed, mating-for-life birds. Damn, damn, damn, about the whole damn thing.

To be fair, I did wake up with a pretty significant tattoo above my left eyebrow. The permanent marker with my surgeon’s initials (to mark which side of the head to perform the craniotomy) would fade over time. The angry red scar would eventually begin to fade as well, but it is still always with me: my unplanned tattoo. Permanent disorder rather than the stability and order and sense of control that I was originally seeking.

I suppose I got my wish for that tattoo after all, although in a different way than I originally envisioned.

woman post-op craniotamy
February 29, 2016 — three days post-op, eyebrow incision, left frontal lobe cavernoma resection

And as my pre-surgery bravery project (since I couldn’t get that tattoo), working up my courage to go under the knife, I decided instead to cut off my long, golden curls that went down to the middle of my back. Before surgery, my neurosurgeon and I had discussed two different possible types of incisions: behind my hairline (preferred by a lot of people because of cosmetic reasons and no facial scarring) and an eyebrow incision, since this particular cavernoma was right on my forehead above my left eyebrow.

We agreed on the incision behind my hairline, which would require shaving part of my hair, and a lot of staples.

And so, I decided to cut off my hair thinking it would be a lot easier to have short hair instead of masses of tangled curls while laying around recovering, and it would be easier to keep it short while growing out the shorn portion.

And honestly, I thought to myself, cutting my hair will be good practice in working up my courage for this surgery.

Imagine my great surprise, then, when upon waking from the four-hour procedure, it turned out my surgeon had changed course and opted for a minimally invasive supraorbital “eyebrow” craniotomy instead.

So now, an eyebrow tattoo and short hair! This was quite a change.

And today? After my left frontal lobe cavernoma resection just 10 months ago, we are now considering craniotomy número dos, a parietal cavernoma resection.

This is getting so ridiculous.

Which brings me back to my friend and I yesterday joking again about tattoos.

See, I’ve kept my hair short since my February surgery. It was easier, and I rather liked it. I cut it even shorter, a pixie cut. I even experimented with color a bit: first blonde, and then dark with red undertones.

Still here, still being a little bit brave, just with hair color this time.

And then I had this stroke, and the ambulance, and the hospital again, and my neurosurgeon: “You should take this out.” Another potential surgery.

Naturally, like any person, my first thought was, “Well, maybe I’ll have time now to actually get that tattoo!”

Except, I’ve gotten a lot more cynical over the last year. Brain surgery will do that to you. Don’t get me wrong, I rely on gratitude almost every minute of every day to get by. It’s how I survive.

And humor. Dark humor. Lots and lots of humor.

So my friend and I were sitting on my couch, talking about the latest plan for my brain. My friend is a planner and a medical professional, and she wanted to know the plan. I tend to freak out hearing the plan in its entirety or at least the end of the plan — surgery — so I like to break things into tiny little bite-sized pieces. First, get scans from hospital. Call UCLA. Send scans to UCLA. See what they say.

That was the end of my plan. I rather liked the end; it helped me breathe a little easier.

But my friend wanted to know all the options: craniotomy here in town at our local hospital, go to UCLA or USC (the big research hospitals), recovery, location, etc.

This got me thinking about the particulars, which makes me freak out a bit. OK, a lot.

Which got me thinking about my unintentional eyebrow tattoo, and the swallows that mate for life, and really shaving my head this time (a behind-the-hairline incision for the parietal resection), and how on earth am I going to cope this time, again?

So I stopped my friend mid-sentence, and I tossed aside her perfectly logical medical plans, and said: “I think I should get a tattoo.”

“Only this time,” I continued, trying to find some humor in this plan for two craniotomies in one freaking year, “I think I should shave that part of my head now and get a tattoo on my scalp for my surgeon to find once the medical techs shave my head. I’ll get the tattoo now, regrow my hair before the procedure, and then it will be like a surprise for the surgeon to find.”

My redirecting of the conversation worked. We didn’t have to talk about the brain plan any longer. Now it was just laughter about my absurd scalp tattoo, the next bravery project, the way I might survive the overwhelming fear of this next procedure.

My first suggestion was a flock of vultures.

I thought it would be pretty hilarious for the surgeon to discover a flock of vultures under my hair, circling the site of the intended incision.

My friend and I laughed about the absurdity of everything, the vultures and another brain surgery, for a good five minutes. I even showed her my idea for a writing project, a new blog, with the image of a lovely flock of birds flying away in the top righthand corner.

The birds, in my mind, are the vultures.

I told this idea to my mother later that day, and she grimaced. I persisted. Eventually, she gave up and even began to laugh, contributing ideas to my scalp tattoo scenario.

“How about scissors?” I suggested.

“A saw,” countered my mother. This made me laugh. Hard.

“A pirate map, with ‘X marks the spot,’ so the surgeon knows just where to cut,” I replied.

I still like the vultures. My mother thinks this a terrible idea and rolled her eyes at me to let me know her exact thoughts on the matter of my scalp tattoo.

Maybe I will get the wrist tattoo then, after all. Perhaps something more poetic: a phoenix rising from the ashes. A dove wishing me serenity and peace. A swallow like the graceful diving swallows my grandfather and I used to watch together when I was a little girl as we blew downy soft feathers from our hands, which the swallows would use to line their nests in springtime.

Or a flock of vultures on my left wrist, circling a saw. To signify the absurdity of it all, the humor, coping one day at a time, and my gratitude for finding a little bit of laughter in my day at the ridiculousness of a secret scalp tattoo.

Because the reality is, pretty soon I might actually have that scalp tattoo, staples and screws and hardware and all, whether I like it or not.

At least the vultures will still make me smile.

Follow this journey on Broken Brain, Healing Heart.

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Originally published: January 21, 2017
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