Wednesday, December 8th 1999 is a date that resonates in my mind. It began just like any other day – but then, they all do, don’t they? When you wake up in the morning, you never know whether it is going to be a day ‘just like any other’ or whether your life is going to be irretrievably and irrevocably changed forever by teatime. We have all had a few of those in our lives, and this was one of ours.
I drove Michael into school as I had a cello quartet rehearsal at 8.30, and he was one of the players in the group. In the middle of the morning, the door of my room flew open and Peter, the Director of Music, rushed in to say that Michael was in the medical room, obviously unwell. I went across the road and found Michael sitting on a bed in a rather confused state. He was also dressed only in his PE shirt and shorts. As far as I could gather, he had been in the gym doing PE when he suddenly became aware that he was very unwell indeed. He didn’t seem able to describe to me exactly what he meant by this ‘feeling unwell’ ; he wasn’t making very much sense at all. He did tell me that he knew that he had had to get out of the gym, so had asked to be excused and come to find the nurse, but he couldn’t be more specific.
By Monday, January 3rd I was starting to lose patience. Michael seemed to have this headache which lasted until all danger of me asking him to do any cello practice was past, at which time it disappeared and he cheered up. I sent all three of them out on a bike ride to get some exercise and leave me alone for a bit. When they came back, Michael said he had a terrible headache and went straight up to his bedroom where he lay in the dark. By nine o’clock, he was being sick.
How on earth I was lucky enough to see a GP at 9am the next morning after that big Bank Holiday I will never know. Our GP wasn’t working, and I saw a young locum whom I had never met before. He appeared very flustered but he took one look at Michael, who was lying down on the couch with his eyes shut and his hand over his eyes, and asked me why I hadn’t already gone to Casualty. I was amazed. ‘With a headache? Over New Year? Why would I?’ The doctor looked hard at me and said, ‘Well, you’re going there now.’ He was certain it wasn’t meningitis, but beyond that he said nothing. I made some hasty arrangements for Christopher to spend the day with a friend and then packed a bag and left for St Peter’s…
At about 8.30, Michael seemed to begin to stir. He wasn’t able to move his limbs properly and the panic started to rise in my chest. He was confused and disorientated, and we sat and talked quietly to him to try and keep him – and ourselves – calm. By now there was no doubt in my mind at all that he had had a stroke. The on-duty consultant neurologist arrived to read the CT scan and we were wheeled down to the scanning department – complete with an entire trolley full of resuscitation equipment. All of a sudden nobody was thinking ‘migraine’ any more.
Michael slept throughout all of it, probably fortunately, and as we prepared to move him back to the ward Graham asked the registrar for a preliminary report – basically, had they seen anything on the scan. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘On the right hand side of the brain.’ I couldn’t believe that – Michael’s problems had always been focussed on the LEFT side. I assumed there had been a bleed of some kind and we awaited the neurologist’s opinion.
He arrived with a copy of the scans shortly before midnight. He showed us an area, about the size of a plum, in the right temporal lobe of Michael’ s brain. He told us that it was a brain abscess, not a pleasant thing but something which would hopefully respond to intensive antibiotics which he proposed to commence straight away. He faxed the scans across to the Atkinson Morley Hospital in Wimbledon, which is the country’s leading centre for brain related injury and illness, so that they could confirm his thinking…
The senior house officer arrived shortly afterwards. ‘Mr and Mrs Norton? Good to meet you. I am sorry to drag you over here in the middle of the night, but we have had a good look at Michael’s scans and I am afraid to tell you that we are fairly sure that this is not an abscess. We think he has a brain tumour.’
Berrie, who wrote this blog, and her husband Graham, are now Trustees of The Brain Tumour Charity.