As we made our way from the jet way to the baggage area at Pittsburgh International Airport we encountered the above sign. My wife, Wenda, and I were encouraged to see these words because our travels to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center marked the beginning of a journey with an uncertain destination. We flew to Pittsburgh so that I could have micro vascular decompression surgery. This is medical-speak for having a neurosurgeon drill a hole in your head in order to do a procedure on a nerve that sits at the base of your brain. Here is the backstory:
For years I’ve experienced an eye twitch in my right eye that would come and go. At times I thought it was related to stress or drinking too much caffeine. A few friends diagnosed my condition as a lack of magnesium. Over time these eye twitches expanded to a spams that covered the right side of my face. The symptoms were not painful, just annoying especially in social situations. As these temporary facial distortions grew in intensity and frequency, Wenda urged me to go to see our doctor. Like many American married males I resisted the persistent pleas of a concerned spouse.
Finally, when I noticed some slight atrophy in the right side of my face, I surrendered to her wisdom and went to see our family doctor. Though my doctor could clearly see my symptoms, she was unable to diagnose the problem. As a result, she referred me to an Ophthalmologist and a Neurologist. When I saw the Ophthalmologist, he told me I probably had a condition known as Hemi Facial Spasms. He further counseled that I need not see a Neurologist but instead referred me to an Ocular Plastic Surgeon. A few days later I received a call from a nurse, inviting me to come to Milwaukee to be examined by the Ocular plastic surgeon. After doing some research and learning this doctor treats the symptoms of Hemi Facial Spams with Botox I did some more research on treatment options. After a conversation with my sister I discovered a cousin in Colorado received surgery for this same condition a few years ago. I immediately called my cousin and she shared her experience with the condition and told me after struggling with it for two years, she finally had a successful outcome with surgery. I decided it would be best to address the root cause of the problem, rather than treat the symptoms, which came with some negative side effects. Learning that this is a rare condition and that my cousin went to an internationally recognized surgeon, I decided to follow her lead and go to the University of Pittsburg Medical Center, where this surgeon is on staff.
As I mentioned earlier the surgery is called, “micro vascular decompression.” I learned that my condition is caused by a blood vessel or artery (rarely a tumor) that interferes with the 7th cranial nerve, which controls facial muscles. This nerve begins at the base of the brain, extends behind the ear and then branches out to the face. When this nerve is constricted it involuntarily fire, triggering random movement in facial muscles.
A procedure known as an electromyography can diagnose this condition with 100% accuracy. An MRI with enhanced levels of magnetism reveals to the surgeon the exact location of the offending vein. The day prior to the scheduled surgery, I received these two tests. Immediately afterward, Wenda and I went to the surgeon’s office and learned the electromyography revealed I did indeed have Hemi Facial Spasms. However, the surgeon quickly added that he was in a bind, because the MRI did not reveal any compression on my 7th cranial nerve. We received the news with shock and disbelief because the doctor does not do surgery unless he can target the exact location of the problem. The neurosurgeon said that my case is extremely rare and happens in less than 1% of the patients that he sees.
Wenda and I are still processing this unusual set of events; it is difficult to say with any clarity exactly what is happening. We believe that the Lord led us to Pittsburgh to see this surgeon. Yet, we obviously did not receive the result we expected. Someone might read this story and conclude any of the following:
- It all may have been all been in my head. Yet, the surgeon assured me that I’m not crazy. “Whew.” He said the electromyography tells him without question that I have Hemi Facial Spasms. There is no faking it. The doctor also gave me a saliva test and sent one to my cousin, who received surgery a few hears before. He wanted to use our DNA samples as part of his research seeking to determine if there is a genetic component to this disease.
- We had many people praying for us. A few, in particular my nephew, a friend in California and their friends prayed for healing prior to surgery. Their prayers specifically included that the doctors not be able to find any problem. I have a strong inclination that God is in the process of healing me. Even in cases where micro vascular decompression surgery is performed in 50% of the cases that are successful, patients experience a gradual reduction of the symptoms until the symptoms finally cease. I am reminded of the blind man in Mark 8, whom Jesus healed in stages. Healing isn’t always immediate. I am noticing with each day my symptoms appear less frequently and with less intently.
- The worst-case scenario is that my 7th cranial nerve is being affected deeper in my brain stem. The doctor mentioned this possibility and then quickly added that neuroscientists debate the actual cause of the disease in the very rare cases when they cannot find an obstruction to the nerve.
So what am I learning in this process? Though the story is not in its final chapter, a few important lessons are beginning to emerge:
- I am to proceed one day at a time in faith. I love certainty. I often resist trust and adventure. I believe the Lord is teaching Wenda and me “surrender” or “relinquishment.” That is, trusting God’s will no matter what it entails. The evening before the tests Wenda and I discovered that we came to this same prayer of surrender independently from one another.
- Healing is not always immediate as evidenced when in Mark 8, Jesus healed a blind man in two stages. As of right now I believe the Lord is healing me. As of today I experience symptoms with less frequency and less intensity. Yet, only time will tell.
- There is power in friendships and Christian community. Wenda and I are incredibly grateful for friends and family that have extended prayers, love and support. We’ve had front row seats in seeing God work powerfully through the active kindness of His people. We could not have traveled this journey without the help of others.
- The Kingdom power of acts of kindness. When we are feeling broken and vulnerable, acts of kindness shout God’s love. A brief prayer with a stranger, neighbors caring for our dog, friends giving rides to the airport, prayers from our small group all shout God is present in the expressed love of His people.
- Healing is not always about curing but a sign pointing us to the greatness, goodness and love of God. Our deepest need is to walk closely with our Lord. Both tragedy and triumph can point us in that direction. We’ve experienced greater intimacy with each other and with God through this experience.
- Finally, God’s plan is the best plan. After we arrived at the Pittsburg airport to return home, we saw a sign advertising a health insurance plan. It read:
Indeed we are experiencing more than we could have imagined on this unexpected journey.