I used to live a normal life. I was a professional dancer, felt fit and healthy, went to the gym 2-3 times a week and maintained a good diet. Then, around 2009 when I began to suffer from headaches and exhaustion, things started to change. Gradually, my lifestyle and personality worsened; I went from being FUN Rod who loved to laugh, go out, see friends and party to a total hermit. And no doctors were helping.
As my symptoms increased and intensified, my trips to the doctor became more regular. I was eventually referred to an ENT (ear nose and throat doctor) but had to wait a month just to get a CT scan and another four weeks for the results (which showed that I have a deviated septum, something I already knew). They offered to fix this, a painful operation that most likely wouldn’t get to the root cause of my headaches. No thanks! And so, life continued.
Regrettably, I had to give up my dance career and become a PT. My business had grown but I was finding it hard to even deliver decent sessions. If I even bent over to pick up a weight, I would get a sudden surge of pain to the front of my head (I later learned that this is known as intracranial pressure, a serious warning sign!). I tried to remain positive but by now the headaches were pretty much constant and becoming unbearable, forcing me to take up to eight painkillers a day.
One night, I lay in bed but couldn’t fall asleep. By the following evening, I still hadn’t slept due to the constant, crippling pain and called my parents in Scotland in tears. This was a turning point for me. I had left home at 16, fully independent and determined never to worry my parents. On the phone, my mum told me to just bloody call 999! I did exactly that and the ambulance and my best friend, my rock, arrived to take me to the hospital. At A&E, they gave me two codeine tablets and sent me on my way with a letter to give to my doctor, referring me for an emergency MRI scan.
I’d never been so excited. I started to feel there was hope. This headache had been the focus of my life for over a year, so much so that my friends were starting to think that it was ‘all in my head’...the irony isn’t lost on me. After a short consultation appointment prior to the scan, which consisted of following a pen with my eyes and a test of my reflexes and neurological signs (um, hello, I’m a dancer. I’m bloody sharp and if you ask me to look left, right, up and down, I’m gonna do it with some style, haha) the doctor said:
“Mr Buchanan, I believe you are addicted to analgesic medicines and what started off as a normal headache, you have made worse due to this addiction. I am going to prescribe a painkiller that will be kinder to your stomach and help deal with these headaches.”
As I write this, the fury comes rushing back. I refused to leave the office. I’d waited over a year for this. FINALLY, he offered to arrange an MRI to put my mind at rest. Back on another waitlist with a scan scheduled for four weeks time and I could do nothing but remain hopeful, even as my health was deteriorating before my eyes. Just a week before the scan, I was walking through Green Park station when my legs suddenly went numb. I held onto the walls praying that I could just make it home without collapsing. I was going into random spasms, seizing from my upper back into my head and being sick on the street. My behaviour was becoming more and more uncontrollable and embarrassing.
Finally, the day of the scan arrived. After the picture was taken, the nurse said she wanted to run a line of dye in my arm to highlight a clearer image. At this point, I could tell something wasn’t right. After the second image was taken, the smiley but clearly concerned nurse came back in and advised me to wait for the doctor. I questioned this since I was an outpatient but she urged me to stay. After a short wait, the doctor found me and sat me down.
“Mr Buchanan, we have found an obstruction on your brain.”Now, you would think this would feel like a sentence but, for me, it was a massive sigh of relief. I had waited 18 months for this news. Deep down, I had always known something was seriously wrong with me but when your friends and even medical professionals doubt you, you begin to doubt yourself. I turned to the doctor and said “Ok, what’s next? Let’s deal with this.” Survival instinct kicked in immediately.
I had ten minutes to call my parents in Scotland and break the news to them before I was sent to A&E for a full body check. Telling my parents was the hardest part; I lost my strength, I was so emotional on the phone, I could hardly get my words out. Knowing that I was breaking my wee mum’s heart was just devastating. I got myself together and told them not to worry about rushing down to London: “It’s Friday. I’m sure nothing will happen till Monday.” Boy, was I wrong!
After spending a night in the hospital where my scan was taken, I was transferred to King’s College Hospital, which specialises in neurology. I immediately met a neurosurgeon who sent me for another MRI scan and ran various tests before we discussed a plan of action. My results were delivered and the surgeon’s words remain vivid in my head to this day. “Mr Buchanan, we have to drain a substantial amount of fluid from your head. Your brain is drowning in its own fluid and I’d say you are probably a week away from death if we don't act immediately.”
My parents were en route to London but wouldn’t make it in time to see me before surgery. Thankfully, my best friend was by my side…to make fun of my new style, hospital gowns and bed socks, a strong look! After the first surgery, I felt much better. They drained the fluid in my head but were unable to do a biopsy so I still knew nothing about my tumour. I was left to rest and welcome my parents (when I say welcome, I lay there, drugged, dribbling, laughing and talking absolute nonsense). Later that evening, I met with the neurosurgeon and another gentleman, Mr Bhangoo, who would go on to become my hero and lifesaver. Mr Bhangoo was to take over my case from here and perform another surgery to remove the tumour in one week’s time.
A couple of days past when I woke feeling worse than ever. It felt like someone was taking a hammer to my head and down the back of my neck and spine. No position gave me any relief and I was vomiting uncontrollably. I would need emergency surgery to remove the blockage and have an external drain fitted. I felt a lot better after and now had a fetching accessory coming out the right side of my head. A tube going into a bag by the side of my bed, which soon got nicknamed my bag of Pinot Grigio! The surgery to remove the tumour had to be delayed but I held tight and, with the help of the external drainage, started to enjoy myself, believe it or not.
I haven't touched on this yet but a major concern for me when I was admitted to hospital was the fact that I hadn't “come out” to my parents. Now, I would be lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by lots of mates who don’t necessarily sing Kylie constantly but who are comfortable with their sexuality. I thought, OMG, what am I going to tell my mum and dad? But, I quickly decided that, at this stage, it was irrelevant; I was too sick to care. And it soon became apparent that my parents had the same view. I lay in my hospital bed and watched my parents and friends bond. They looked after me and one another. I had made a pact with my mum that neither of us would cry in front of each other and we stuck to it. After visiting hours my friends would take my parents for dinner where they would laugh and cry together.
The day of the procedure arrived and it would be a long surgery, possibly 12 hours, with huge risks and, assuming everything went to plan, I would also be left with a significant scar. Mr Bhangoo asked if I had any final questions, to which I asked “If I survive, will my hair grow over the scar?”
Everyone’s faces were a picture...that’s it, Rod? That’s all you want to know?
I let the sensible adults in the room ask some serious questions but I thought, screw it, if I die I die, I won’t have questions to ask, but if I survive, I want to know what state my head is going to be in.
The doctors wheeled me down and hooked me up to all sorts of machines, I chatted with them and we laughed and joked. I’m a firm believer in the positive; I didn’t want to be put to sleep having doubts in my mind, the survival instinct was stronger than ever; my mantra was LET’S DO THIS.
“Ok, Rod. Start counting down from 10…”
12 hours later and I’M ALIVE!
After an hour in recovery, they took me up to my parents (mum looking exhausted, haha) and my bestie. According to Mr Bhangoo, “It couldn't have gone better.” I would have a ventricular shunt (an internal drainage device with a tube that threaded down my neck and into my stomach) fitted to replace the Pinot Grigio bag, which would control any buildup of fluid post-surgery whilst the swelling in my head went down. This would be my fourth brain surgery in a month.
The thing I remember most post-surgery is feeling so ashamed. It’s amazing how silly things like vomiting in public and having to have a nurse help me wipe after the toilet made me feel so much worse.
Once I was cleared to go home, I spent the next six weeks at home recovering. Building the muscle in my legs was the hardest part, I pushed myself hard, sometimes too hard, taking long walks then not sleeping for the pain in my legs. My head healed nicely, but what I wasn't prepared for was the post-traumatic stress of it all. I was paranoid about everything. I felt nervous even just walking, scared I’d fall and bang my head. If I felt a little under the weather, I automatically thought I was dying.
After my home recovery, I was cleared to fly and my friends decided to take me to Mykonos for a week’s “ holiday recovery.” I landed on the island of Mykonos and it was like someone released the floodgate. I hadn’t cried since the day of my diagnosis and now I couldn't stop. Once I was back in London, I received a letter from my doctor offering me a six week course of cognitive behavioural therapy. Hesitant about any kind of therapy, I reluctantly accepted the offer. I did some strange things during those six weeks from creating a web of trust with a ball of wool to drawing pictures of my family home with crayons but something clicked. The tears ceased and I felt the door close on Tabitha the Tumour.
In the end, my tumour was benign and the size of a baby’s fist. People often ask does this experience change your life? Easy answer, YES.
My willpower to fight and survive shocked me. At no point did I think I was going to die, at every stage my attitude was LET’S DO THIS. The experience made me look at my life, where I was, who was I, and where I wanted to be. My eyes had been opened and whilst everyone around me empathised, I believed all of this has happened for a reason. It made me come to understand what a fighter I am and what I’m capable of. I no longer sweat the small stuff because in the back of my mind there is a little voice telling me that I’ve been through a lot worse.
I can honestly say that my days are filled with infectious laughter; I smile far more than I ever did and I love to see the people around me happy. When situations get stressful I thrive under the pressure. And when I start to feel things building up, I find that reflection to be great medicine. I was always a happy person but now, no matter how tired I am, I get up and I look forward to life, I feel stronger and healthier than ever, my confidence has grown, I believe in myself and I push myself. And I feel gratitude for my every day I get to live. And with this attitude, there are no limits and no boundaries.