Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Story

After finishing this little study (6"x8") I felt like celebrating!
I didn't know how my brain tumor was going to affect my painting and the work that I had been doing up until this little study was questionable. 

My tumor was benign and I expect a complete recovery. The complications beginning three weeks after the initial surgery made me very ill and what started out to be a surreal episode in my life turned into a very real and life threatening hell. Doctors have told me it should take between 6 – 12 months (maybe 24) after my second brain surgery before I feel 'normal' again. It's been 5 months. With the completion of this painting I feel like I'm ready to get back to my life and accept my new 'normal' ....finding enjoyment in everything I do - headaches & fatigue be damned.

When I asked about the effect all of this would have on my painting I was told none. Not that it would have changed anything but I don't think they really knew what would happen. My tumor was on the left side of my brain, the creative/art side is on the right. So it was a surprise when I went to pick up a paint brush and discovered that I didn't know what to do with it.

As I work through my recovery, I would like to share my progress. My ongoing journey as an artist has shifted but I'm going to continue to paint, show my work where I can and let the journey continue.

It All Began When.....
I was diagnosed with a Meningioma on my 35th wedding anniversary. We were supposed to be on our way to Vegas for 3 nights and then across northern Arizona for some painting, sketching, fishing and photography. It was shocking to say the least because I had one small episode where my words came out garbled for less than a minute and then 20 minutes later a very unusual headache. I had suspected it was just stress but it was so unusual I called my doctor. I had one appointment with a nurse practitioner, one MRI and then one phone call an hour later from my doctor. Within a week my life had changed. My doctor stressed that she suspected a benign brain tumor but wanted me to see a neurosurgeon asap.

'In Need of a Refill'
My tumor measured 4.7 cm x 4.9 cm x 3.7 cm and was located in the left temporal region of my brain. It was causing pressure on my brain and needed to come out. It was in a "good" location and they predicted a complete recovery.  Although they couldn't give any guarantees, they didn't see any reason to worry about complications.  After all the crying and sharing with family and friends, I felt an immediate need to get my studio cleaned up.  I had to finish a couple of commissions I had been working on and I didn't know how long I would have to wait before painting again.  I discontinued my plans to enter a couple juried art shows and canceled my plans to attend the 50th anniversary of the Society of Animal Artists annual event in San Diego.  The thoughts of what I was going to be putting my family through were unbearable.

The date was set for September 3rd in Phoenix at the Barrow Neurological Institute.  As much as I feared the surgery, it went fine.  I wasn't in as much discomfort as I had suspected and I felt euphoric to be alive and surrounded by my family when it was over.  I was out of the hospital in 3 days feeling fantastic because I really didn't know just how much the tumor had been effecting my ability to think clearly and talk.

Three weeks later I was back in the hospital in Tucson for seizures (garbled talking again) that they assumed were simply a reaction to the brain surgery - it happens.  I was there for 5 days and then 2 weeks later I couldn't read.  The CT scan showed fluid build up where my tumor had been.  I was back in the emergency room at Barrow with an infection, more brain surgery and sick as hell.  This time I was in the hospital for a week and came home with a PICC line.  I felt very lucky to have had the good doctors and staff at Barrow, lucky to have had an infection that was easy to isolate and treat and blessed to have so much love from my family and friends.

It was a surprise two weeks after my 2nd surgery when I didn't know what to do with a paint brush I had picked up.  I didn't know how to hold it so I set it down.  It was frightening.  I needed to give it some time and try again, take a deep breath and take one day at a time.  I didn't tell anyone.

Two months after my 2nd surgery I still couldn't paint.  I couldn't understand why I was having so much trouble and didn't know if it was something that would come back to me or if things had just changed.  Holding the brush felt wrong, it didn't feel like I knew how to mix color and when I tried to paint with monochromatic values the proportions were wrong - nothing seemed like it was working.  I wiped everything off that I tried to paint.  It wasn't like I had forgotten how to paint, it was more like my hand had forgotten how.

I had problems with language (aphasia) after my second surgery since my tumor and infection were on the left side of my brain.  The speech therapist at the hospital gave me a lot of advice & exercises to do in order to regain my speech and writing abilities.  As my problems with speech and writing got better - my problems painting didn't.  I applied some of her suggestions to painting and with the encouragement of my husband I went back to basics.  Started with some sketching and worked very slowly on what I was doing, concentrating in a way that I never had to before.  And I wouldn't let anyone see anything I did - everything was wiped off.

At 3 months, I finally painted something that I didn't wipe off.  It was a tea cup that I had painted many times before.  I felt like celebrating.  I had work in current shows that I had done before my diagnosis but in reality I had a lot of fear about whether or not I was going to be able to paint again.  I joked with people about trying to paint abstract expressionism instead of impressionistic realism but it wasn't really a joke.  I had loved the struggle of creating realistic subjects and the sense of accomplishment of being able to capture something that I loved, something worth sharing.

It's almost as if my life has become a cliche - Follow your passion.  Take life one day at a time and get as much as you can from it while you can.  I have a new sense of purpose with my art - although it's not a well defined purpose yet.  My recovery is ongoing and I don't know how my art will change or if it will change but the journey has changed.  I love being an artist, it is an incredible privilege and an honor when someone likes my work.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story.


  1. Oh Barbara! Your blog was so well written!! I am thrilled that you are doing so well!!! (especially after such hell!!) You have, and will continue to be in my thoughts and prayers!!! I look forward to reading more about your continuing, and apparently very successful road to recovery!!! Your Lion is indeed a very regal impression, and such a telling tribute to the spirit who brought it forth!!! You rock girl!!!! xo

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I told Doc about my similar tale. Mine occured 2 1/2 weeks after my 26th birthday... mine was benign, but one hell of a recovery followed. We are stronger for our scary ordeals. Thanks again.


  3. Thank you Barbara for sharing your moving meningioma account and reminding us that it's perfectly acceptable to embrace cliches.
    I completely identify with your feelings about how different your craft felt to you post-surgeries. Your artwork is a beautiful display of how you're redefining yourself. Absolutely lovely!

  4. Barbara, I am so glad I found you through the Meningioma Mommas FB page - (hats off to Liz, above!!!) I blogged about my trials as well, post op, but I have not yet been doing much artwork. I have dabbled with sketching and there has been great improvement since my first try, but a way to go before I am back in full swing. I am fortunate that my tumor was on the right side so my right (drawing) hand is not effected. Thank you for sharing your inspiring story, so well written! I wish you well, always.

  5. Dear Barbara, I can relate to your feelings, I often use clichés to remind me of stuff. Your artwork is spectacular and I am jealous of your self motivation. We ought to get together for a chat over coffee/tea or lunch since we live so close to each other.
    my blog is at GBYAY Anne Breen