By HADEEL IBRAHIM
Jennifer Wiebe speaks in images. She describes events in snapshots that illustrate and add feeling and texture to what she’s trying to convey. She chooses those words carefully and her low voice rises only in rare moments.
Someone meeting Wiebe for the first time wouldn’t be surprised to learn she is a painter and art instructor. She is also a mother of two, with the traces of an accent that she carries with her from her childhood in Maine.
Someone meeting her for the first time would be surprised to learn that a year ago, Wiebe underwent a 13-hour surgery to remove a brain tumour that was plaguing her for four years.
Facing the possibility of death and finally being rid of unpredictable excruciating pain has changed the way she approaches life. She calls it a “life paradigm shift.”
In the spring of 2016, Wiebe was at Killarney Lake Lodge in Fredericton, where a faculty pot luck was being held. Mid-event, she got a call from a neurologist telling her he couldn’t help her, that she had a tumour, and she had to find a surgeon.
She was diagnosed with trigeminal myalgia. A three-centimeter-wide tumour was pressing on the trigeminal nerve in her brain.
“All of these people, 60 of us, we were together at the lodge. I went back to the meeting, it was like a shock. I didn’t know what to do,” Wiebe says.
Her surgery was on Jan. 4, 2016, at Victoria General Hospital in Halifax. Her mother came to stay with her for six weeks.
“I couldn’t do anything. I just had to sleep the whole time,” she says. “There was some pain, headaches and complications, a lot of vertigo.”
There was pain on her hip from lying on her side of 13 hours that took four months to go away.
She says before the surgery she was worried about one thing, and it wasn’t herself.
“It’s very weird because in terms of what I was concerned about … once I had reached acceptance of ‘this is what I have to do’ then I was not afraid. I wasn’t afraid. I was just resigned like I had to do it, it will save my life, I just had to do it. But I was worried about my kids.”
But after the surgery, she says, the way she went about life changed.
She and her boyfriend went to Cuba for March break after her last checkup.
“I went for my [last] checkup the first week of March and then we got on a plane that night.”
She now feels a sense of clarity, about everything.
“Every facet of my life, my friendships, my family, my time, my health, my priorities, what I like to do, what I love to do what I’m not going to do. Whereas before surgery or before I knew I had a brain tumor and survived the surgery, I don’t know.”
She says she was never indecisive, but she often second-guessed herself.
“I find it really easy now to make choices and act on those choice,” she says. “It’s easier to be happy.”
She says the big thing for her was the pain. She would not have known she had a tumour without it, but living with it was hell.
“The trigeminal myalgia it’s called the suicide disease because people who have it want to kill themselves to stop the pain,” Wiebe says.
She says there was a risk of the surgery making it worse.
“They didn’t know that moving the tumour off the nerve, they knew it would save my life because the tumour was so big … but the thing that was causing the pain was the pressure on the trigeminal nerve and they didn’t have that much experience. [The doctor] didn’t know that by moving it it would flare the pain or it would end the pain. He couldn’t tell me. So that was terrifying because living with that was hell.”
Wiebe could not describe the pain she experienced. The closest she can get was saying, “it’s like having somebody with battery cables attached you face.”
“The difference between having that [pain] and not having it, it’s everything. It’s not the same as life or death but it’s almost. It’s such agony that it’s such huge relief to not have that happening.”
Wiebe says after the surgery, her boyfriend says she’s nicer.
“He says I’m not as mean,” she says, laughing.
She says she’s always been kind of a hedonist, but she relishes the moments with her family more now.
“My family we love to cook, we love to eat, we have a garden, we drink wine,” she says. “Maybe I’ve upped my game a little bit post, like cooking and food is a great pleasure.”
She corrects herself. She says it’s not hedonism, but enjoyment and relishing the little moments.
“It feels like that is the point. I definitely try to help facilitate enjoyment of my family and going to where they are them coming to where we are.”
Wiebe says sometimes, when she’s watching television and the show “House” is on, she has to shy away from the episodes when the patient has to undergo a surgery. But for the most part, the experience has made her more attentive, more present and able to provide more love than before.
“I feel like I’m more adaptable and I’m more proactive for problem solving in any situation with my family or with work,” she says. “I’m friendlier to myself.”