How a Headache Changed My Life

I experienced one of the scariest days of my life three years ago. I left early from my job as a summer camp counselor and came home to a head-splitting, force field migraine. It felt like an elephant was sitting on my eyes. I popped some Excedrin and hoped I would get better– or so I thought. Here’s what happened: 

Bright lights. That’s all I remember. I held my head in my hands at JFK Hospital, trying to forget about the searing pain. It felt like someone rammed my head against a wall. My eyes itched, agitated from the pressure behind them. Every time I glanced down at the clipboard, my vision blurred. My eyes felt heavy. My mom patted the back of my neck with a damp washcloth. It didn’t help. After struggling to fill out paperwork in front of a nurse, I earned a bed in the emergency room. I lay flat, paralyzed by the pain. My head spinned, and I closed my eyes to stop it. When I opened them, I saw tiny, green dots.

A nurse named Cindy came in a few minutes later and explained that I needed a spinal tap to rule out meningitis. Beads of sweat formed on my upper lip, and I panicked. Then the doctor arrived. I curled up in a ball, refusing to be touched. I woke up in a daze after the procedure, savoring the comfort of my dad’s embrace.

I tossed and turned on something that passed for a bed as I waited for results. The blankets suffocated me, the television broke, and my translucent complexion frightened me. I stayed on the neurology floor, which reminded me of the twilight zone. I got used to the soundtrack of beeping monitors and carts rolling down the hallway, but I couldn’t tune out the woman at the end of the hall who moaned at all hours of the day.

I woke up the next morning screaming for morphine. I couldn’t deal with the pain. A male nurse resembling McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy strolled in. His bright smile, toned arms, and cheerful disposition put me at ease. He said a few words to my mom and me and plunged the needle filled with morphine in my arm. I drifted in and out of sleep for the rest of the day.

After an endless amount of poking and prodding, there seemed to be a solution to the problem. Dr. Merkin, my neurologist, gave the diagnosis: pseudotumor cerebri. A year’s worth of dramatic weight loss and weight gain, combined with a recent sinus infection, had set off the release of fluid in my spine. This excess spinal fluid fluid went straight to my brain, resulting in intracranial pressure that caused the appearance of a fake tumor. Apparently, I walked around with excess spinal fluid for a long time. Dr. Merkin said explained this had caused the headaches and pressure behind my eyes. Dr. Rosenberg, a neuro-opthalmologist, then examined my eyes to see if things had worsened. He told my parents I needed another spinal tap to relieve more pressure from my spine.

The spinal tap rescued me. I passed the test (walking to the bathroom by myself) and prepared to go home. My physician, Dr. Singh, joked around and told me to leave. As soon as my parents finished signing forms, we left the hospital. I tilted my face towards the sun, soaking in the late afternoon rays before I got into the car.

Fast forward to today: I struggled a bit (because of the trauma my brain experienced) during fall semester of my sophomore year at Syracuse University, but I recovered and graduated in May 2013. I also exercised for 2 hours at least four days a week to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. It wasn’t easy, but I was terrified of the pseudotumor coming back. My doctors still don’t know what caused the explosion of spinal fluid onto my brain.  I’ve always been healthy, but take my diet and exercise more seriously than before.

Pseudotumor cerebri strikes overweight young women in their childbearing years (ages 18-34). A recent study shows that overweight people are at a greater risk of semi-frequent migraines. If your child is overweight, prevent the risk for pseudotumor cerebri. Look for certain signs, such as a headache that lasts for more than three days. If this happens, be sure to take your child to an eye doctor to check for pressure behind the optic nerves. if there are more severe symptoms, call for a neuro-opthalmologist to check for fluid in the brain.

Image: Woman with a headache via Shutterstock

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