Gamma Knife

15 Jan

It sounds big and bad and scary, especially if you go online and read about it.  Having a heavy metal halo screwed to your head so that you can be bolted down to a table for several hours and have hyper-concentrated Gamma rays zap the tumors in your brain in an MRI-like machine is pretty daunting.  So is the list of possible side effects – bleeding in the brain, necrosis of the brain tissue, seizures (or, in the case of a fourth round of Gamma knife, like mine, paralysis or aphasia)… not pretty.

But honestly, the procedure itself is not so bad.  Yes, you have to get up bright and early in the morning to be at the hospital by 5:30.  And you can’t eat anything after midnight on the day before the procedure.  But once you get there and finish your pre-radiation MRI, the nurses give you IV sedatives so that you’re calm (and pretty much out of it) when they give you the shots to numb your head and screw on the halo.  (Incidentally, the screws don’t go very deep – they just break the surface of the skin.)  I can barely remember that part of the procedure at all.

As a change from all the other areas in the hospital, the Gamma knife ward is empty – only one patient is treated at a time, and the whole unit is separated from the rest of the hospital by walls of lead to prevent radiation leakage.

You also have your own personal nurse throughout the entire procedure.  My nurse, Kelly, was about 10 or 15 years younger than my mom, with black hair that had a grey streak in the front, à la Stacy London.  She was kind and cheerful, and even made it in to my fourth Gamma knife treatment despite having tripped over her dishwasher a few days previously, falling and breaking her nose on the corner of the countertop.

For me, the most annoying part of Gamma knife was the boredom.  You can bring your own music and have them play it for you, but other than that, it’s just you lying flat on your back in a little tunnel for 15 minutes per tumor.  And when they plan to treat 14 tumors at a time, that means 3 ½ hours at a stretch completely and totally motionless.

Once the procedure is finished, patients typically spend the rest of the afternoon recovering in a private hospital room.  The nurses want to see that you can manage the headache from the halo with a few Lortab, and you have to drink a cup of juice and keep down half a sandwich.  I was unusual in that it took me less time than normal for most people to recover – I only had to stay in for an hour after the radiation was over.  My pin sites also healed more quickly than I was told they would – after four days rather than a week and a half.

The worst side effect I ended up experiencing was the slight deterioration of my (already terrible) eyesight.  Coming through four rounds of Gamma knife with over 40 brain tumors treated and so few side effects definitely gave the doctors something to write about.

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