From the Doorstep of Death to a Miraculous Recovery

by Brenda Faiber

December 23, 1995, was a sunny morning.  The gym was abuzz anticipating the upcoming Christmas holiday. I had been working out with my group of work-out buddies for the past 3 years, 4-5 days a week. We became a family and supported each other on our journey of health. Several asked me if I would be coming tomorrow since it was Christmas Eve day and I assured them that I would be there. Famous last words.

When I awoke the next morning, something was not right with me. I had this weird feeling in my ears like a radio playing static. No matter which way I turned my head it would not stop. I immediately called a good friend who is an Otolaryngologist and explained my symptoms. He told me that I probably had water in my ears and prescribed an antibiotic. As the days moved forward and New Year’s Eve arrived, I was not feeling better but probably worse. My 19th wedding anniversary was the next day and, a few days later, I celebrated my 46th birthday. By the end of January, I was unable to continue working in my psychotherapy private practice as I was experiencing acute hearing loss and dizziness and would bounce off the walls in the hallway at my office. There was still no concrete diagnosis of what was going on in my head.

Fast forward to the end of February when, after seeing several doctors who could not diagnose me, I was finally able to get an appointment with a neurologist. My Sister-in-law worked at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She spoke to many of the specialists there and did research in the medical library, but no one could come up with any answers. I was experiencing excruciating pain in the back of my head that would not stop. At this point, I felt like I was dying. I had lost 30 pounds and could not function.

On Feb 29th, my husband brought me to the emergency room where the neurologist met us. He still was not sure what was going on and did a spinal tap in the emergency room. From this test, he was able to determine that I needed to have an MRI of my brain and that concluded that I had Stage 4 Metastatic Melanoma of the brain, cancer that most individuals do not survive. The next day my “hero” oncologist showed up in my room to deliver the news. I looked him straight in the eye and told him, “I was going to beat it and asked him if my hair would fall out.  His response was “I hope so and yes you will lose your hair.” He told my family that I had 6-9 weeks to live and that he would do all that he could do to treat me. I was very fortunate that he was on call that weekend because he saved my life.

The next couple of weeks were painstaking while the doctors tried to figure out a treatment protocol. I was placed on heavy doses of painkillers, started chemotherapy and radiation treatment and, of course, my long blond hair fell out in my hands.  That was extremely devastating for me.

When I was lucid, I was able to invite my family and friends to my “botanical garden penthouse”, where I had received many beautiful flowers. The use of our imagination is a very powerful healing tool. Being a psychotherapist, I began counseling the daughters of a mother who was in the next room dying of a brain embolism. It was only natural for me to help them with their grief.  One morning a friend of mind crawled in bed with me and asked if I had dyed my hair because it was orange. I told her it was from the betadine solution that they used to place a reservoir in my head so that could directly administer the chemotherapy into my head. We both cracked up and laughed and still talk about it to this day. My sense of humor kept me going, a very important tool in the cancer recovery process. Dr. Bernie Siegal has written an entire book on “Healing, Laughter, and Miracles.”  He is the author of many healing books.

I was sent home from the hospital towards the end of March to continue my chemo and radiation treatments. Every day was more difficult and the pain in my head was excruciating. By then, I had lost most of my hearing, had no balance, and was seizing. The chemo and radiation treatments were discontinued as they were not helping my condition. By this time, I had very little recollection of my life and was out of it most of the time.  My amazing Dr. received a memo across his desk from Duke University in NC that they were looking for patients that had been diagnosed with Metastatic Brain Cancer and their current treatment was not successful. My Dr. shared this study with me and my family and the risks involved. They had to send my cancer cells up to Duke to see if I qualified for the Clinical Trial.

I did qualify for the trial and I remember saying to my family, “What do I have to lose?” I am already dying, maybe it will work. Taking risks and looking for alternative treatments are important in battling this insidious disease that there was no known cure for. The next hurdle was, how am I going to get to Duke in NC since I was in no shape physically to fly on a commercial flight and it was too long of a drive? By this time at the beginning of May, I was totally out of it and have no conscious memory of that time. One of my dear friends at the time came across an article about private pilots that did what they called, “Angel Flights” to transport sick patients to facilities for treatment. She contacted the organization and they were available to fly me up there free of charge. Once again, I have no memory of being up at Duke undergoing treatment.  I was accompanied by my office partner (who was by my side every day during my journey) and my mother-in-law. My husband at the time had to take my 15-year-old son up to New Jersey for a major crew race.  My son was the star coxswain in the state of FL. The crew team is what kept him sane during my illness. I had the treatment and my family was told that if it worked, they would see a major improvement in my condition within 2 weeks.

I did not get better, I got worse and was totally out of it and in what they call a stuporous state, having several seizures a week. As the summer wore on, I was slipping away more and more every day and not aware of what was happening.  I was told that my son would wake up in the middle of the night and come into the bedroom to see if I was still breathing. He and I have always been extremely close and he was scared, anxious, angry, and unsure if I was going to survive and that thought was devastating him. Many of my friends were therapists and offered for him to go to counseling and he declined. Instead, he would go outside in the backyard and beat the trees or the fence with a baseball bat to let out his rage. At the age of 15 that was better than drugs or alcohol.

At the end of the summer in 1996, I was placed in Hospice care in a nursing home with no hope of survival. I weighed 86 lbs, could not hear, had no physical mobility without assistance, was like a rag doll with no muscle tone, and could not do anything for myself. My family and friends came to see me but I was unaware of their presence. I had crazy hallucinations from all of the drugs, was completely confused, and had no idea where I was. I remember sitting uncomfortably in a wheelchair for what seemed like hours in the gallery. I had become so thin, even just sitting was painful.

At the beginning of December, I fell on my head in the shower room when the CNA left me unattended in a mental shower chair while she answered a phone call. Believe it or not, that incident saved my life. After that fall and the cracked cheekbone it caused, I started to wake up. I remember yelling out, “I surrender to this illness!” And I started to wake up. When I started coming around, after losing almost 9 months of my life, the joke with my family and friends was,  “Oh that must have been while I was sleeping.” reframing the negativity into a more positive statement and not dwelling on the doom and gloom.

I had a long way to go once I woke up,  unable to hear what others were saying but still able to speak. My friends came up with a brilliant idea. They bought me an erasable board they could write on and then I could respond. It worked well. We need to be creative in times of need. I also needed physical therapy to learn how to walk again and stand on my own without a walker. Due to insurance restrictions, the physical therapists reported to my family that this was the best that they could do and I had reached my potential. My husband at the time told them,” you do not know who you are dealing with” knowing I was determined to go further.  It is important to have a patient advocate every step of the way, especially when you have a catastrophic illness and cannot advocate for yourself.

I was barely able to stand up on my own with a walker and did not have any balance, but one of the CNA’s who worked in rehab took me under her wing. She worked with me daily to teach me how to walk using a gait belt. In the beginning, I remember I did not know what to do with my arms since I was so used to holding to the walker.  I was like a baby learning how to walk again.

I was still a Hospice patient and the visiting social worker would come to see me. The last time I saw her, I told her that I did not need all the meds that I was on and could take a Tylenol if I had a headache. I became proactive in my treatment.  I was a success for the social worker and she appreciated our visits when I started to recover. At the end of December, I was declared cancer-free as all of my blood levels were coming back to normal. My doctor called me a “Medical Miracle” as did the Drs at Duke. I turned 47 when I was still in the nursing home and my family invited my friends and made me a birthday party. I wrote a speech and invited everyone to my 50th birthday party, something not many believed would happen… but it did. And I invited a lot of people and celebrated all over again.

So why do I write this story? I want to share with all who read this to stay positive and know that the more you believe that you will survive, the more you can. It is to empower you to have hope, to believe in the power of prayer (people praying for me all around the world), and to always remember there are possibilities in life that we may not even know about. My perspective has changed, as did my personal life, and I am grateful every day to be here to inspire others. My life journey was difficult but my “indomitable spirit” incredible support system and medical team guided me to have the strength and courage to recover. I feel that my family actually had it more difficult than I did because they had to watch while I was in that ill, stuporous state for so many months.

I am now 70 years old, my son will turn 40 in March, I live healthy, and my life work is to inspire others.

The mantras that I live by are “Never take no for an answer and never give up.” “Life is worth fighting for and believe in yourself.”  We are all experiencing extremely difficult times right now and it is important to know that you can reach out to us at 26health for mental health support, to find the humor, to reframe the negativity, to be creative… or just to talk. 26Health is here.

Brenda S Faiber, MS, LMFT Behavioral Health Therapist

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