Finding the ‘new normal’ after brain surgery: Martina Carlson’s voyage of discovery
The Lifehouse Arterie studio is a long way from home for 26-year-old Martina Carlson, who visited Chris O`Brien Lifehouse’s art programme recently from Sweden.
When Martina was 22 she went to see her doctor at home in Sweden about some epilepsy-like symptoms she had been experiencing. After many attempts to get help, she finally saw a specialist. To her shock, he told her to go straight to the main hospital in Gothenburg as she could die in 10 minutes.
“It was just a normal Friday morning,” said Martina. “I’d been at uni in the morning and told my friends I’d be back in the afternoon, but then everything changed. I went from normal to I could die, it was a real shock.”
Martina had surgery to remove an 8cm x 6cm egg-shaped tumour from her brain.
“The surgery cut the nerves for movement and speech, so when I woke up I couldn’t speak. The doctors told me that I should prepare myself in case I was paralysed, but how do you prepare for that?”
When she was still in hospital, Martina worked out a system of sign language with her family and eventually recovered most of her former abilities, including her ability to speak: “I’ve learned to walk twice now, once when I was seven months old, and again at 22 years. You can’t repair a broken nerve but the brain is so clever, it finds new ways of doing things.”
Martina’s surgery was followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy, with several years of rehabilitation. Everything was going well, until three months ago when Martina hit a mental wall as she realised that she was theoretically back to ‘normal’, but what was the new ‘normal’ for her?
“I realised what I had been through and that I couldn’t do everything that I had instinctively done again. I have problems with concentration, and I have a headache that never goes away.
“So I decided to travel overseas by myself, to figure out who I am today and what I can do with my life. ‘Old normal’ doesn’t work for me anymore so I have to figure out what my ‘new normal’ is.
So Martina packed her bags and headed overseas for a solo trip to find her new self.
“I’ve had a month in New Zealand and Australia, and I’m now about to fly to Hong Kong and spend 12 nights there. Back at home in Sweden, people keep asking me, how can you do this? But I’ve done the most amazing things! I’ve been skydiving, as well as both white and black water rafting, the Bridge Climb, and trekked in the Blue Mountains.
“My tumour isn’t active at the moment. I know it will come back but my doctors don’t know when. So now I’m doing some work with Young Cancer in Sweden, for 16 to 30-year-olds and their relatives and friends.
“It’s really good to be here at Lifehouse and see people working with cancer in different ways. It’s giving me lots of thoughts for how I can help people when I get back home, like writing a ‘how to’ list for all the logistics you need to do to plan a trip. Hopefully it will help people who have had brain surgery like me.”
Martina spent the day with one of our Arterie Arterists, Joanna Morrison, who visits patients around the building with a ‘Carterie’, a mobile art studio packed with art and craft activities. Our Arterists find that these activities are not only fun but also help distract from some of the side effects of cancer treatments, like stress and isolation.
Martina said: “I’m going to do some embroidery with Arterie here today. I’m going to write in Swedish: GÖR SOM HAVET VÅGA! Which means: be like the sea, like a wave, roll on, but also dare to do something different, something outside your comfort zone.” Which is just what Martina is doing.