Where My Story-Mischelle Watkins – Really Begins
See Mischelle Watkins Exposed Here:
Sometimes a story starts in the middle or the end so that when you REALLY start telling your story, it just makes more sense. Mischelle Watkins Story is like that too.
Have you or anyone you know ever had a brain tumor?
Since I was 16 years old I’ve never been able to go anywhere – either work or pleasure – that someone asks me about my left hand. “What’s wrong with your left hand?” they ask and I can either tell them, “It’s nothing, just an accident when I was younger,” or I will share more details.
The receiver of the information always clues me in on what to say or how much detail to go into by their body language and responses to my answers.
My reason for writing this is so that my Mischelle Watkins story is told to the universe and I can stop explaining and just point people somewhere that they can read as much or as little as they want to about what, “happened to my hand.”
What happened to my hand is nothing compared to the nightmare I went through when I was sixteen-years-old.
As a 16-year-old, I was a pretty normal kid growing up in the 70’s. I was 5’4″ and 117 pounds. I had all the stuff most other girls had – long (blonde) hair, slim, athletic build, generally well liked by most and doing fine in school – above average and a bit on the ‘dorkish’ side of social acceptance by my same age peers. Mischelle Watkins was just a kid wanting to blend in. I woke up on the morning of June 17, 1976, before anyone in my family was awake and went downstairs. I was looking forward to being one year closer to going to college, freedom from my parents rules and my junior year in high school coming up that fall.
I noticed that I was having a REALLY hard time waking up and getting out of bed and nearly fell down the stairs trying to get down. I clung to the handrail and felt like I was dragging myself down (or keeping myself from falling head first – I couldn’t tell which). In my mind, I was telling myself that I was just tired and that the cloud I felt like I was moving around in would go away once I woke up a bit more and moved around a bit.
“Shake it off,” were the words that kept coming to me that morning, “you’ll be fine, sis,” was a common mantra my family repeated to me for the next several years.
Once I got downstairs, I remember going to the fridge for a glass of milk. I got a glass out of the cupboard, opened the fridge and pulled out the milk and turned around from the fridge with the milk carton, poured the milk into my glass, still amazed that I felt like I hadn’t woken up yet – almost as if being awake was surreal.
I finished pouring my milk and put the carton back in the fridge, grabbed my milk glass with my left hand and it fell to the floor and made a big mess all over the kitchen floor. “Wow, I said to myself, what the HELL just happened!? I must REALLY be tired!” Since I knew that cussing out loud in the house for parents to hear was asking for it, I only said that thought out loud in my mind ( plus, grandma and grandpa would be told that their perfect granddaughter was cussing-humiliation in my family was a shared experience). I picked up a towel, cleaned up the mess, grabbed a mop and cleaned up the rest of the mess and it felt like it took — f o r e v e r — to do that. So, I grabbed the milk carton – again – and poured another glass of milk into the same glass, grabbed the full glass once more and – again – it fell to the floor and made a mess a second time.
I was afraid I would wake up the house with the noise, so I cleaned up the mess a second time and resolved to go back to bed to see that if by getting more sleep if I could shake the feeling of exhaustion that overwhelmed me. I headed back towards the stairs and tripped over my left foot, then dragged myself back up the stairway and fell into bed for an extra hour or two of sleep and what I hoped would wake me from the confusing and scary dream that I thought I was having. I pinched myself because I wasn’t sure if I was dead or living in some horrific nightmare where I couldn’t feel anything.
It probably wasn’t more than an hour or two that I heard my mom asking me to wake up and get out of bed to go with her downtown to pick up something from a downtown office that she needed. Going to school or not going to school was pretty much an option in our house. Not because my parents didn’t care – lazy was not a good enough excuse. But because my brother and I rarely had issues with school. Our homework was always finished and we seldom let chores go. Skipping school had no thrill for us since we wrote our own excuse notes and mom just signed them anyway.
Our chores were mainly with the animals and house (we lived further away than most school kids. We lived on a small acreage and helped our grandparents on summer vacation with chores at their farm). We learned the value of hard work and tenacity. Staying home from school was never a prize to us, because our friends were all at school and staying home meant extra work at home.
Waking up still seemed difficult so I mumbled something to my mom as she was walking past my room in the hallway, “Mischelle Watkins, Hurry up! I need to go in an hour,” she sounded a bit irritated that I hadn’t jumped out of bed like I normally did. “OK,” I slurred my words lethargically and set about climbing out of bed again, noticing the same results as the first time I tried it that morning. Since going back to bed I had lain in bed wondering if I had died in my sleep and that this was some kind of screwed up version of what heaven was supposed to be like. I pinched myself several times trying to help myself wake up. Seems like getting dressed took way too long and it was summertime too, so getting dressed meant shorts, shirt, sandals, but it felt like forever getting those few items put on.
I was out in the car ahead of my mom, waiting for her. Having had my driver’s license for six months, every opportunity to start the car, move or park it was taken advantage of by me. Once I had moved the car and made a hurculan effort to drag myself across the seats to get in the passengar side, mom got in the driver’s seat beside me and handed me her folder of paperwork and grocery list. I took it and said something and she looked at me with a funny look, “Are you OK?” she asked. I looked down at the floor and mumbled something incoherent and she engaged the car. We were heading to town.
I can only imagine what was going through her mind when we got to the building in downtown Salem, Oregon. She told me to take the folder in for her and pick up a folder waiting for her there. I knew that walking across the parking lot, to the office building would be hard and I didn’t want her to know that I was having problems, but I still didn’t know that my entire left side was paralyzed and that she was looking at me funny because I was only talking out of one side of my mouth when I answered her.
That’s why my mouth felt so funny – swollen and disfigured, and my words were slurred and I had a hard time keeping milk in my mouth without spilling it down my chin. I still thought I would be fine, that whatever ‘it’ was would go away.
So when mom told and not asked me to take in her paperwork and I told her I didn’t feel like going in the building that day, she insisted with a worried frown on her face. So, I got out of the car and limped and dragged my body to the office where I was to go. Pulling open the door to go into the building felt like the door handle weighed a thousand pounds. I got to the reception desk, tried to tell the woman at the desk what I wanted, “What?” she repeated several times. Finally, I communicated what I wanted, got out of there and headed back to the car where mom was waiting and watching me like a bear looking for salmon in a shallow waterbed. When I got back to the car mom looked at me and said, “You stay here. I have to go in and make a phone call. DO NOT MOVE from this car, I will be back in less than ten minutes. Do You Hear me Mischelle Watkins!? DO NOT MOVE from this car until I get back!” she said in one of those high pitched voices bordering on hysterical. “Where on Earth did she think I was going to go!” my mind screamed, I was having a hard enough time just sitting upright in the car! She ran into the building and called dad. Together they picked a doctor out on the phone, she called the emergency room and asked that the doctor meet us there, which he did. I still have no idea what she was thinking. I only know that she looked scared and panicked and frantic. We never talked about it until years later. I looked up and out the car window to see her running back to the car. I was so tired. I tried to smile at her, but I felt like I was going to be in some kind of trouble and didn’t know or understand what that meant. Yet.
“We have to go to the hospital,” she said when she got back in the car. “What for?” I asked her. “We are going,” she answered me, “Right now!” Mom normally took her sweet time driving anywhere, but that day I think we were at the hospital emergency room in seven minutes. They whisked me in through all the admittance procedures and I was met by a doctor Gordon Peterson who poked, prodded, and generally squeezed me through an hour or so of strength, agility, reflexes and motor function tests.
Dr. Peterson was kind and serious. He noted all of my symptoms on his report and ultimately performed a spinal tap that proved little. Sensations and function returned to normal after three days so my experience was written off, but not taken lightly. More tests were scheduled. Growing pains were mentioned, but this was far beyond growing pains. I had headaches that made migraines look like picking up the dinner dishes. I could eat and my food would normally metabolize almost instantly, but I was throwing up like a bulimic would when I ate and not voluntarily, either. My vision was blurry and I had a hard time seeing at all. Much later when mom showed me a birthday card I tried to write in, it was obvious from the squiggly lines across the card that I had double vision. She showed it to me several months later. She kept that card, got another one, signed it for me and sent it in place of the original card I had ‘written’. At the time she only looked at it, put it in her purse as if she would mail it for me and never said a word. I learned with time that her calm demeanor was my cue that something was terribly wrong.
For the next several weeks I became the poster child for, “I just don’t know,” by a plethora of doctors who had no explanation for my headaches and symptoms. After the third doctor, I could pretty much dictate and recite their reports for them. “Mischelle Watkins is a well developed, well nourished white female in no acute distress. She is awake, alert, oriented as to time, person, place appropriate and spontaneous. Cranial nerves 2-12 are grossly within normal limits except, the patient does demonstrate a mild facial droop on the left side. Strength in the upper and lower extremities appear to be grossly within normal limits, except there is a mild weakness of the upper extremity and lower extremity, as evidenced by mild dysdfiadochokinesis, being a zero to minus one on the scales of zero being normal. Rule out arteriovenous malformation or perhaps massive lesion right temporal parietal hemisphere. Plus a whole bunch of other words that I can’t spell. I was a healthy, attractive young kid who had spent her entire life doing something athletic or that involved physical labor (cleaning stalls, loading hay bales on a moving flat bed truck . . . .).
And so it went for about a month of tests that really never proved anything conclusively until they decided to perform an arteriogram and a new test that scanned the brain. We had to go to Portland to the University of Oregon Health Sciences Hospital for that. At the time it was a new test and the only place they could perform it was in Portland because there was only one machine in Oregon. By then I had had what seemed like an unending migraine and one more stroke. This was a case where the cure was worse than the disease (or at least it felt that way at the time). I thought the second spinal tap was bad because they moved me too early and sent me into an immediate fit of headaches that I thought would kill me. But it was the angiogram that REALLY had me wondering if death wouldn’t be better.
The night before the angiogram the nurse came in and shaved my pubic area. I felt humiliated and embarrassed. I was wheeled in for the test and hooked up to an IV for the chemicals to shoot through my brain so they could take pictures inside my head. It felt like they poured gasoline on my head and lit it on fire when they gave me that test. They didn’t just shoot that crap through my veins once. They did it several times and by the last time I was screaming because of the pain. Believe it or not, that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the person who kept telling me, . . “be quiet and lay very still or the pictures wouldn’t be clear and we’ll have have to do it again.” I knew with absolute certainty that I did NOT want to go though that test again – Not even ONE more time.
After going through a long list of doctors and stumping them, we finally met Dr. Harold Paxton in Portland Oregon. He diagnosed my brain tumor and performed my surgery. No one was certain that I would live through the surgery or recovery phase. Dr. Paxton (at the time) was one of the top five neurosurgeons in the country. There was an angel on my shoulder by the time we got to him.
My brain tumor had grown so large that they sent me to the hospital in Portland in the car with my dad and mom instead of an ambulance. Years later mom told me that they didn’t know if I would make it to Portland. At the time I thought it was strange that mom turned around in the front seat to talk to me from Salem to Portland. She talked non-stop and I thought to myself, “I wish she would turn around and shut up.” While dad drove with one eye on the road and one eye in the rear view mirror, so much that I thought we might get in an accident since he wasn’t paying attention to the road. I wanted to sleep so badly and my folks would not let me sleep.
You see, my folks had been told that if I fell asleep I might die and because the tumor was so large there would have been nothing they could do to save me at that point.
I was admitted into the hospital. Too old for the children’s ward, so I was put on the heart patients floor until they found a more suitable room. Surgery was the next day.
At sixteen you really have the world by the tail. I thought I knew everything and I thought I knew it all better than anyone else. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to have this ‘awful’ surgery either. I was terrified and stubborn in a foolish and childish way at the time. I wanted to just go home and pretend to be OK. One of the Salem nurses put it to me in very plain terms. I guess she had a sixteen year old at home. “If you don’t have this surgery you will die,” she said. “But if I have it I might die too,” I argued. I knew my parents couldn’t force me to have the surgery if I didn’t want it and I argued with them for three days about it. That sounds crazy to me now. It made perfect sense at the time. I knew that the odds were not in my favor with the surgery and I was scared. I had to lose my hair-my long blonde hair that had only been cut once since I was five-years-old. Shaving my head mortified me. Finally reason kicked in, plus the priest coming in to give me last rites was good incentive, too. So off we went to Portland hospital and Dr. Paxton.
I knew that my parents would be devastated if anything happened to me. My brother was a stoic soldier who stood silently taking all of this in, never once asking for a single thing for himself. He was always like that. Always the big brother protecting and watching over me. Never saying anything or asking for anything for himself. He’s always been calm and cool about everything and is one of the few people who can get out of me what needs to happen. He is also the brother who I fought with religiously for years. I love my brother, Reggie, beyond words.
I decided that I had to tell my parents that if something happened to me to please go on and live complete and full lives, but to remember me without tears. I tried mom first. I told her that I had an amazing life that was more full than most people got in a lifetime. I went on about how she had been the best mom in the world and a good parent and had nothing to feel badly about – ever.
She ran out of the room in a burst of tears yelling for my dad to come in that I was talking crazy and she couldn’t stand it. I begged her to listen to me then because I didn’t know if I would wake from surgery.
Dad came in and we sat in silence for quite a while. I told him I was sorry to scare mom, but that I was scared and that I didn’t want to die because I wasn’t ready. I went on to tell him that if I did not wake up that I wanted him to know that I was prepared for death as an option and that he was the best dad I could have asked for.
He held me then and silent tears fell down his cheeks. My dad cried three times in my life-that was the second time. The last thing I said to them all before surgery was, “I love you.”
Ten hours later I woke to the pinching of my arms and chest just under my shoulders by Dr. Paxton. He was directly over me in ICU with my mom and dad looking at my bandaged head and heavy concern showing on their faces. I wasn’t waking up as quickly as they wanted, but all my vitals were fine. I felt the pain of the pinches and woke up with a start, Hey! Stop pinching me! That hurts!” I said in an exuberant, loud and irritated voice. “Did I die?” I said, and the whole room full of family and doctors and nurses erupted in a round of smiles and laughter. Immediately after the surgery I had full use of my entire body.
Within six hours after waking up from surgery I had suffered three severe strokes and was being told that I had a lifetime of paralysis to look forward to. That’s what one of the interns was telling me when my dad walked in the room. Dad looked at my intern and asked him if they could talk in the hall. I heard a thud as the intern was pressed against the hallway wall by my dad who then said very clearly, “That is MY Daughter in there, her name is MISCHELLE WATKINS. My daughter WILL WALK AGAIN. Don’t you EVER tell her she can’t do something again. That’s MY daughter in there and she WILL walk again!”
“Yes Sir,” was the last thing I heard in the hallway as my dad came walking back through my door again with a big beaming smile on his face as if the intern had never been there to ask me, “How are you, sis!?” “We’re gonna have to get you out of here in a few days so we can get you home and back on your feet!” dad said cheerfully with no hesitation or doubt in his voice.
I knew with some confidence then that all would be fine, but a small part of me felt a bit doubtful as I shook my head in agreement and laughed out loud with my lopsided smile.
My dad was a mortician at the time of my surgery and he lost all enthusiasm for his career afterward and quit one day without notice while I was still in the hospital recovering. We got to spend some time together after that. Dad ended up driving a lo-boy truck for the rest of his life. We rode on several trips together. He said he had no regrets, but I always felt a bit responsible and guilty for his choice to quit a career that he studied years to get a license for. He had a fatal heart attack when I was 27 years old and our family lost our hero. Dad was only 52 years old when he died. Mom followed him ten years later with a broken heart. As did both sets of our grandparents. Having forged a tight support system as children, my brother and I became even closer after their passing. I call us mutual fans of each other.
After spending most of that summer in the hospital, I was finally going home to recover. Wearing pajamas had become a habit by the time I could go home. Going home was all I thought about those days.
Dad and mom came in with sacks of gifts that day. It looked like mom had maxed out the credit card at Nordstrom and dad just grinned the whole time they were there. I was tomboy at heart, but mom always overlooked that part of me and stood in front of me armed with make-up and a lecture about being a lady. My crooked smile, paralysis and bandaged head were invisible to everyone in my family. Never completely adjusting to the restrictions of my paralysis, my first thoughts were always instinctive in moving around as fast as I could.
Getting out of bed should have been easy with that mindset, but it landed me firmly in a heap on the floor. So, now I was mad and I was going to get dressed. I had to put on a pair of pants, a pair of shoes, and a shirt that slid over my head. They put me in another room to dress while they cleaned my room.
It took me three hours to get dressed in the hospital the first time. I cried and cussed and just refused to let a soul help me. They shut the door behind me so they didn’t have to watch me struggle getting dressed. Tears streamed down my face as I contorted my body to get it to work as well as I could. Dad and mom stood by me and cringed while they ignored my fit behind the other side of the door as I somehow managed to dress completely except I couldn’t get my shoes tied by myself and I felt foolish while dad leaned down and tied them for me. I felt their sadness and their joy. Mostly I just felt determined to win. The paralysis became a game for me that I was dedicated to overcome. After all my dad said I would be fine and my dad never lied to me.
Before the surgery I played classical piano for four years. Since then I was never able to play with both hands and gave it up, but I did entertain the idea of playing a violin at one point and allowed procrastination to get in my way.
One thing you lose with brain surgery is a portion of your memory. I learned to study again and that was hard. My grades fell to ‘C’ level and that really bugged me. I was back in school for my senior year, but struggled with school after that. Immediately going to college from high school was a severe challenge. Kids in high school were cruel with their poking fun at the ‘gimp.’ I had two friends because people were afraid I was contagious. Cruel, childish, un-informed idiots.
The one thing that bothered me most was having a paralyzed face on one side. Six months after my surgery grandma and mom and my brother were in the kitchen with me and grandma said something funny. When I laughed my mom burst into tears and eveybody became animated and excited and looked at me twice as if I’d done something terribly wrong. Up to that point I had spent every single day pushing on my face with my right hand for 1-3 hours a day.
The napkins mom had been keeping in her pockets and purse for my drool could be put away. That was the day I got my face muscles back and talked and laughed fom both sides of my face. Six months after that I was walking normally again with arms and legs swinging the same distance apart .
Strokes rob people of feeling. There can be nerve damage, which I had. Afterward it can most often show up when a person is tired, anxious or stressed (that’s how it is with me too). I will slouch, and have less strength in my left side when that happens, but it goes away. I just have to stay active in my lifetime. Since staying active was a habit from childhood there have been no problems for me in that way.
Dad taught me to walk again. He took me outside and hooked me up to a lead line (we trained horses and it made sense) around my waist until I could hold it in my left hand. He made me walk in circles with him until my physical strength came back. On nasty days and days when I was tired I cried and begged not to have to go outside and walk in circles. Dad would have nothing to do with those excuses, “Get ready and let’s go,” was all he would say. I went. When I could cinch up my own saddle we started riding horses together again.
Mom had to sit on her hands many, many times to keep from jumping up to help me with something and let me struggle with it instead. I watched her cry a lot after my surgery. She was a strong woman so I never felt pity for her, just empathy. She didn’t know I saw her cry and I never told her.
I know that there is an angel on my shoulder. What did I do?
I learned to type right handed at over 80 wpm. I learned to golf, scuba dive, and water ski and re-learned how to snow ski. I smile and laugh out loud as often as I can. I know that all of this was worth it. One day a year I lay in bed wide awake until midnight just to celebrate one more year of living. It’s my birthday and I love that day. I married an amazing man who insists on holding my left hand and if I give him my right hand he says, “No, Mischelle Watkins, I want your ‘good’ hand.” I own my own business and yes, I get down once in awhile.
When I was thirty years old a woman I was working alongside asked me what the disability for my hand was classified as. I asked her what she was talking about and she pointed at my left hand and asked me again what my disability was. I told her I didn’t have a disability and when she insisted that I did, I called her a liar.
Instead of seeing what I can’t do, I look up and see what I can do. Way up-right straight at the moon and stars because now they are sitting on my head just like my parents told me they were.
I may not get tomorrow, but I get today. That is my gift. That is Mischelle Watkins story. Thank you for listening.
© Mischelle Watkins, All rights reserved. For reprint permission, please email Mischelle at: firstname.lastname@example.org You may excerpt as long as you link to the post.