1. Wiedenhoeft, Frances MA, BSN, CRNA


What would it take to make you really appreciate the precious moments of your life?


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"Why don't we have the students take him to the waiting area for a few moments so that we can talk, Frances?" My neurosurgeon, Dr. Dempsey, was a gentle man with quiet faith. He spoke in the soft but firm tone of someone used to delivering bad news. The "him" who was being taken to the children's section of the waiting area was my two-year-old grandson, who was playing happily beside me. He went with me everywhere on my days off to give my daughter time to go to school and because he was my little sidekick. I never expected to be a grandma at 35 and now I couldn't imagine life without him.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by McClain Moore

The journey that landed me in a neurosurgeon's office started with a nagging headache. The pain was constant and would wake me up from a sound sleep.


My physician tried antibiotics for a sinus infection and then migraine medicine. When neither helped she sent me to an ear, nose, and throat specialist, who ordered a CT scan. He approached me in the hall of the hospital where we both worked. "We didn't quite see everything we wanted on the scan," he said. "I'm ordering another one of your whole head." I went without question.


Even when he called me the next day and said, "It's probably nothing to worry about but I showed the scan to Dr. Dempsey and he agrees we should get an MRI," I felt no misgivings. I was supremely healthy with abundant energy and working 50-hour weeks, not including Army Reserve or grandson duties. Why would I be worried? I just had a headache.


Although Dr. Dempsey let me know he'd reviewed the MRI and wanted to see me right away, the thought of serious illness didn't enter my consciousness until he asked that my grandson be taken to the playroom. I had the bottom-drops-out sinking feeling that comes when you realize something has just gone wrong and nothing will ever be the same.


"Frances," he said, "you have a brain tumor." I heard the words "poor prognosis." A feeling of panic spread across my chest as I thought about my daughter and grandson.


I loved my daughter, my partner, and our grandson. Each meal I prepared for family and friends and each anesthetic I gave my patients was crafted with love. I loved fishing, days at the beach, bundling up for family sledding trips. I had a passion for running. Out on a run a few days later, I thought about a marathon I had recently been in. It occurred to me that I might never run another one. For a few minutes, a profound sorrow brought me to a dead halt. I sat down on a rock and cried. All I could think was that if I had known it might be my last marathon, I would have enjoyed it more.


In the two weeks before the surgery to remove the tumor, I threw myself with frantic determination into collecting lasts: last long run, last bike ride with my grandson joyfully singing from his carrier behind me, last day at the beach, last trip to the zoo, last potato peeled, last kiss, last caress. In reality, I was in a state of numb shock. Rather than enjoying each precious moment and every last experience, I was rushing through each one so that I could go on to collect the next, like Mario collecting coins in the video game.


On my last day of work before my medical leave, I walked slowly from the locker rooms to the bike racks and bicycled along the lake. It was hot, humid, and the bike path was lined with trees and marsh. I suddenly noticed and absorbed all the subtle variation in shades of green in the leaves, grass, and lily pads. I inhaled warm air sweet with the smell of pine and humid earth. In my frenzied haste to collect new lasts like charms on a charm bracelet, I hadn't paid attention to my initial regret after the diagnosis-that I wished I had enjoyed the marathon more. I vowed to give up collecting lasts and to feel joy in each moment of my life as it unfolded.


That was more than 20 years ago. I was fortunate to survive the surgery and have the privilege of returning to my hectic life. It would make a great story to end with, how the lesson learned through that terrifying time reminds me to slow down, give my attention and concentration to the moment, and taste the rich flavors of my life. Reality is more like the blur of life speeding past, interspersed with marvelously sudden stops of absolute clarity, appreciating the moment as if it were going to be the last.