Explode

There are two things that define my life right now:

  1. I am a medical student, with a little bit of an obsession about neurology and neurosurgery.
  2. I am a cheerleader, also with a little bit of an obsession of the cheer world.

On the 22nd of March, both things combined in the most drastic of ways. This Saturday started as any other Saturday might have – with cheer training. My boyfriend needed a lift to the cheer gym and I was happy to oblige – the plan was to just drop him off, go back home, finish writing my dissertation and pick him up once training was done. The first part went to plan, but when he discovered that one of his team, who had consistently been missing practise, had yet again not turned up, he asked me to stand in for her. Which was unexpected but fine. I subbed in for roughly half of the session but soon realised that I had developed a sudden, severe headache. Instinct told me that this headache was unusual – I have had headaches before (hasn’t everybody?), but never experienced like this, and it was so severe it was worrying. Every jolt, jump or catch made hurt even more. But I didn’t want to be petty and trouble the session for the sake of “just a headache” and instead put it down to being dehydrated, drank some water and carried on. I then got dragged out of a stunt and fell to the floor, landing first on the bottom of my neck and, due to the sprung floor, rebounded and hit the back of my head. Which really didn’t help the headache. I sat out after that, wondering if I had been concussed with whiplash – my head and neck did not feel good!

 

Thankfully, the end of the session came shortly after my fall. I returned to my boyfriend’s house, feeling quite sorry for myself and in a lot of pain. The headache had continued to get worse, as did the neck stiffness, nausea and dizziness. I was absolutely certain at this point I had a concussion, but my boyfriend dismissed it as “medical student syndrome”. When back at the house, I went to the toilet – and as soon as the pressure was relieved on my bladder it was like a switch had been flicked and I entered a whole new world of pain. I felt something in my head go “pffft” and suddenly it felt like somebody had thrown a hammer at the back of my head. I suddenly realised that what I had just gone through was a “thunderclap headache”, a term that I had encountered many, many a time in textbooks and clinics. I remember thinking “I must be having a subarachnoid haemorrhage if I just had a thunderclap headache…. nah, that’s just med student syndrome surely”. Unlike anything I had ever experienced, the pressure on my head was enormous, as if I was wearing a skiing helmet that was several sizes too small. It felt like a great pressure was compressing my brain and pushing down on my shoulders, and in addition I had started shaking and feeling incredibly nauseated. I went to sit on the sofa with my boyfriend, crying in pain, asking him to make it stop but succumbing to the nausea instead and retching and vomiting several times. He had never seen me in this state and we decided then to go to hospital, something in hindsight we should have done much earlier.

 

Fast forwards 20 minutes or so and I was in the A&E department of the Royal Free Hospital, still in a great deal of pain and still bringing up stomach acid. My memory is very fuzzy from now on so I’m relying on what I was told – I can vaguely remember being given a vomit bowl and throwing up when they were trying to take a history from me, and I remember them putting a neck brace on me when they discovered I fell on my neck. But everything was very uncomfortable and painful. My boyfriend tells me they gave me a lot of painkillers and anti-sickness medication, but I can hardly remember any of this. What I do remember is receiving an anti-emetic intramuscularly, in my gluteal, and wondering if they used the spread hand technique that we had learned to avoid hitting the sciatic nerve. I also had a CT scan at some point, which I don’t remember, but I do remember somebody telling me the result: I had a subarachnoid haemorrhage, which was exactly the condition that is typified by a “thunderclap headache”. To most people this would just be an abstract set of words, but having already done a year of clinics I had seen this condition in patients before and it struck a great sense of dread into my heart to hear this, having seen first hand a young patient with a subarachnoid haemorrhage die. I remember my first thought after hearing this was genuinely “Am I going to die?”

 

The next few hours or so were a complete vomit and pain filled blur. The next thing I remember is being log rolled into an ambulance and being blue-lighted to another hospital, the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. Having travelled in an ambulance under blue lights as staff before had been an exhilarating experience, but I can guarantee it was nowhere near as cool as a patient – if anything, it was one of the most painful and disorientating parts of the whole experience. Especially when the route was full of speed bumps, the ambulance was being driven with urgency and I had an excruciating headache! My final memory before passing out from the pain and medication was of the dim interior of the ambulance, my boyfriend squeezing my hand and telling me everything was going to be okay, and the rhythmic pulses of the blue lights. I don’t know what time we arrived at NHNN or what happened after that, but when I eventually woke up the next day I was greeted by my neurosurgeon, Mr Shieff, who informed us that I had an arteriovenous malformation. I now had something to come to terms with: there were three things that defined my life now.

  1. I am a medical student, with a little bit of an obsession about neurology and neurosurgery.
  2. I am a cheerleader, also with a little bit of an obsession of the cheer world.
  3. I have a time bomb in my head, that has already exploded once and could do so again.

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