The Petra Johansson Story – A Chiari Warrior’s Journey [English Version]
“We need to perform surgery on your brain, and we need to do it now!”
What would you do if someone said that to you? Your brain – that thing on the top of your head that is all that is you. Someone needs to cut into it and fix what is wrong and there is no time to think. How are you supposed to say, ”Stop, I need to think. There are questions without answers and I need answers.” Well, I do hope that once you have read this – that is exactly what you will do and you will do it with confidence and a strong voice. Why? Because if you are reading this, chances are you are a warrior too, and to fight this fight successfully, you will need to see yourself as a POWERFUL WARRIOR!
It was spring 2017 and I was the happiest gal in the world. We had planned and longed for years and we were finally becoming a family. I could not have been happier. At that time, I was used to getting headaches when I coughed or sneezed, but I figured this happened to everyone. I would never have thought that something was wrong, but all of a sudden I started getting real headaches and I went to the doctor’s office. They said that it was just the pregnancy and that I didn’t need to worry so I went on with my life. However, the symptoms were escalating fast and I was losing my balance, strength, and coordination, and I had major issues with remembering and focusing. When I finally went to the doctor again, they sent me straight to the ER to get an MRI to rule out a stroke.
As we sat there in that tiny room, we were laughing and giggling. My boyfriend tried to keep my spirits up and with ADHD, he was pretty much bouncing off the walls. I looked at us and thought ” We will be the happier family. Him, me and our little baby.” An intern doctor came in through the door and gave me a weird look. ”How are you doing?” he said. I said I was doing my best to not think about the pain. He started doing some tests, but he didn’t really say much. When he was done, he looked at me again and said ”You have a malformation in your brain. That is what is causing your pain and symptoms.” He explained that my cerebellum was pinched and that I couldn’t go home until he had conferred with specialists at another hospital, and then he admitted me. I had no clue about the journey I was about to take and I honestly didn’t even understand what it was I had. I tried Googling that night and I was wondering what the future would hold in store for us.
The next day the head of the department came to see me and told me that my cerebellum was protruding 13 mm from my skull and that they would have wanted me to have an operation immediately, but because of the baby – they would have to wait. Outside my hospital window, the world was getting ready for summer and the calendars now read, ”June 2017.”
They told me I had something called ”Arnold Chiari” (Chiari Malformation Type 1) and Google explained to me why I had been feeling the way I did. Everything fit and I felt a bit safer going home, armed with the knowledge that I could be helped. Browsing Facebook, I found a group of likeminded people and my world suddenly expanded and I felt like I belonged. But the one thing that kept me going was the thought that I was doing this for someone. Not me, but for our tiny family. I had no idea what was coming. One day I was going in for a scheduled ultrasound in our second trimester and the next I was no longer going to be a mom. The doctors told us that our baby wasn’t developing as it should and that they had to let my body reject it. I fell into a deep depression and I honestly can’t remember much of what happened during that time. Dealing with the loss of our dream and my own illness was too much to bear, and I just shut down. The world was a cruel and harsh place.
It was October when I got to meet my first neurosurgeon and I was told that what they had found was considered an important finding. They really wanted me to get on that table as soon as possible. Sitting in front of this highly ranked doctor, I tried to remember all the things that I was supposed to ask. Things I had learned in the group and on Facebook. The retroflexed odontoid, connective tissue disorder connections and unstable necks. But my mind felt like a non-stick surface and I couldn’t remember any of it. It wasn’t that I didn’t think it applied to me – actually the opposite. But every possible idea that I shared with my new neurosurgeon fell on deaf ears, as he would sternly tell me, ”all you have is Chiari and surgery is going to fix that.” I felt intimidated and was afraid to rock the boat. If I had a connective tissue disorder, they would have known, right? I needn’t worry about knowing this, I just needed a duraplasty and decompression and all would be fine. In hindsight, this turned out to be a pivotal point in my fight (and I hope those reading pay particular attention to this point). This is the point where I should have stopped and stood up for myself. Nobody knows our bodies better than we do, we know when something is wrong. I should have listened to my body and trusted my gut. I should have not agreed to brain surgery without additional testing to rule out the possibility of comorbids pathological to Chiari, and not just assume that the only cause of my tonsillar descent was an underdeveloped posterior fossa. Many surgeons say this and are unwilling to test us for any other pathologies before they alter our cranial anatomy. As patients, we believe our surgeons, even when we know that they are simply unwilling to test any further. They believe what is in their textbooks and I am here to tell you that sometimes, they’re wrong and their assumptions are just not correct. I know we want to believe them, but the complications that can arise if we’re right and they’re wrong are not worth it in the end. Believe me, and if you don’t, please just keep reading.
They removed 2.5 cm of my skull bone and 2 cm of the lamina from my atlas vertebra (C1) in March 2018. For two weeks I was fine until I developed chemical meningitis and was hospitalized. Well, fine is maybe an overstatement since they did forget to close my eye before the operation and it actually dried up and stuck to the operating table, scarring my cornea for life (yes, that is a thing). I waited and waited for that moment when I was supposed to feel good again. But it never came. I couldn’t lay down on my back or the back of my head without feeling like I was going to faint, my head pain was awful and I had several neurological symptoms. The doctors tried different medicines and painkillers but nothing worked or it gave me bizarre side effects. No matter what they tried, the pain wouldn’t subside.
”In Sweden, you have to be a year post-operative before we can make any kind of decisions on your health.” This is something I was told so many times and it was so frustrating. I was told that I was an addict to opioids and that I was imagining my pain. ”It isn’t real, you just think it is going to hurt.” Or, ”You are cured and there is no reason you should be in all this pain.” I was fed so many misconceptions and lies during this period, but I had to keep fighting in hopes of getting my life back. Giving up was not an option. After having new MRIs done to look at my retroflexed odontoid and the possibility of instability, I was told I was fine. The pictures were perfect and I wasn’t sick. I was told that an investigation to look into Ehlers-Danlos would take to long and my doctors didn’t think it was important to do before my year was up. They considered me ”well” and I felt worse than ever. If I was cured, why did I feel like I was dying?
In December I wrote to my doctor ”Please help me, I feel like I am about to die.” That must have triggered something in him because he called me on the phone and we talked for a long time. He told me there were no reasons he could see to explain my symptoms. I had a small herniated disc and an arachnoid cyst. Nothing that would cause my pain and symptoms. Even so – he said he would check with some colleagues to see if there was something that could be done, but he was adamant about not touching my brain until I was a year out from my first surgery.
Time was my worst enemy. I couldn’t believe how slowly it went by. February 2019 came and it was 11 months after I first lay on that table. I couldn’t manage the day to day life, I slept all through the day and I was in grave pain. If I tried laying on my back, I would pass out. My boyfriend took care of our house and me, and life was not a life worth living. Once again I tried contacting my doctor. This time I simply wrote a goodbye letter, I knew I was dying. He called me right away and told me that they were going to open me up again. There were still no indications in the images that something was wrong so they asked me to perform some tests before they would schedule me. I did neurological tests, a lumbar puncture, and a new MRI. I had to be put to sleep during the MRI because of my issues and the tests did show my pressure was a bit too high. However, the neurologist thought I had a couple of extra kilos for my height and attributed everything to me being slightly overweight. My second surgery was scheduled in April 2019.
”Had I seen these images on someone else, I wouldn’t have done anything. There is really no visible problem.” My doctor told me this when I was admitted for my surgery. He told me they would remove the herniated disc and the arachnoid cyst, extend the duraplasty and transfer a titanium plate to combat the decompression effect I had of lying on my back. I didn’t really care what he told me they would do – I would have let them put horns on my skull if he thought it would’ve helped. My life wasn’t a life – it was a passage to death’s door, and I didn’t even know how right I was.
”Petra, this is the worst case I have ever seen” – the words out of his mouth when he saw me in the ICU after surgery shocked me. He continued to tell me that I had massive scar tissue that wasn’t visible in the images and that it was the worst case he had seen in his entire career. Had they waited to perform the surgery, I would have become brain dead. I had no pulse frequency in my brain at all and my CSF did not flow. The scar tissue and the herniated disc were now blocking cerebrospinal fluid and it had all grown together like a giant lump of bad juju. Membranes, cerebellum and the spinal canal were like a big jumble.
I was once again cured and sent off to go home and heal. Despite having major issues with pain control that could not even be managed in the hospital, they figured I was fixed and ready to go. I wish I could tell you that it has gotten better, that the doctors finally started listening to me and realized that scar tissue can go back, but they still don’t. Most of them feel like I am now cured and should be fine. I am 6 months out and am starting to feel the same way I felt before surgery last time. I’m in immense pain, losing neurological functions and my day to day life is nonexistent. My pain management is all that is on my schedule and I am functioning on a day-to-day basis. My neurosurgeon called to check up on me a while ago and when I told him how I was doing he said that they didn’t dare to perform any more surgeries on me now. So I asked him about my thoughts on a connective tissue disorder. I was ready for him to give the go-ahead for an investigation. But to my surprise, he said, ”But you don’t have any more issues than your Chiari, do you?” I was done. For two year I had tried to convey what I thought was going on and told him about me and he hadn’t heard or registered a word of what I said. Enough was enough, and I told him that he needed to listen to me and start helping me feel better and find out what was wrong. I am now waiting to look further into my connective tissues and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS).
Nobody really knows what is wrong with me and how to handle it. I am a great enigma with my doctors and I can not trust anyone to be my advocate and do the research, so I do it myself. I’ve learned to ask tough questions and not give up and I have also learned to ask for help from people in my position. What are they doing and how can I apply that to my life. Without the community, I would be lost. I would not know what to do when I get to yet another doctor or nurse who asks, ”You have WHAT?” I don’t think I would have had the strength to keep on fighting if I didn’t know that I wasn’t alone. I am pretty sure nothing else can happen now that I haven’t already been through. I have more knowledge and experience, but I am also more worn out, exhausted and sometimes just jaded from having to constantly fight. To go through two major surgeries without any relief is not easy peasy. Sometimes it just sucks – I am supposed to get better from treatments, not worse. Right?
So, I commend you for reading through to this point and hope that by doing so, you now know how important it is for you to suit up for battle. You need to be the warrior from the get-go. No matter if they tell you it needs to get done yesterday – you make sure you have your answers before you agree. Get every answer from your list: Could it be from a spinal leak? A cranial leak? Do I have a connective tissue problem? Could my pressure be causing it? Could it be something else than a congenital malformation that is causing your brain to escape your skull? Study and learn all you can, ask for help and be the pain in the *ss patient if you need to be. I know you don’t want to. I know it is rough and that some days you just wanna lay down and give up. So do that – for a day – and then stand up and fight again! We wait for a lot of things. We wait for urgent care. We wait for prescriptions. We wait for testing. We wait for imaging. We wait for a doctor who will believe us and when one finally does and promises some relief with surgery, we figure we’re done waiting. But THAT IS THE TIME TO WAIT and get all the data before you’re on the other side of surgery, where your anatomy has forever changed and they are telling you that you are healed. I know you think that you are pressed for time, but take time and make sure you have all your ducks in a row and do your very best to make sure that nothing is missed, so you can spend time healing and living life again!