Awake During Brain Surgery: 5 Bizarre Things You Experience
Because hacking away at various body parts is probably the weirdest, coolest thing we're still allowed to do to each other, Cracked has spoken to a lot of people about about a wide variety of some pretty bizarre surgeries. But brain surgery is a whole different deal. One wrong slice of the scalpel, and suddenly a key part of your personality is gone.
We spoke to Christie, who underwent deep-brain stimulation to help alleviate some of the symptoms of a condition, as well as Emily and Kevin, who both had surgery to remove malignant brain tumors, about the strange things you experience when medical professionals cut your skull open and start playing around inside ... often while you're awake to watch them do it.
One Day, Your Brain Stops Working
Christie was already thunderously aware that she had a condition that could be improved with surgery. Her only choices were uncontrollable flailing and barking (that's not a joke) or letting someone stick electrodes into her head. The decision sort of makes itself at that point, even though there was a very real possibility that surgery wouldn't help. "I went into it knowing that I could go through having holes the size of quarters drilled in my skull and wires shoved around down into the nether regions of my brain ... and it all might be for nothing."
Other than a new place to keep your spare change.
However, not everyone who requires brain surgery is as easily diagnosed as Christie ("easily" is a relative term here). The ordeal actually began as happy news for Emily: She just thought she was pregnant. She had pretty good reason to believe this, because both a home pregnancy test and a doctor's test had come back assuring her that she was about to be all swole up with a baby. However, it turned out that her body was being tricked by a nefarious brain tumor. "It was messing with [my] hormone levels," she says. "After they found out I had the tumor, they realized [the pregnancy tests were] wrong." Essentially, her situation went from "Hallmark makes hundreds of appropriate cards for this occasion" to "Hallmark makes precisely zero cards for this occasion."
"Send flowers. But we might slice out her sense of smell."
Kevin, meanwhile, has had small seizures as far back as he can remember. "I would space out, and I wouldn't be able to talk for about three to five seconds," he says. Even stranger was the fact that doctors weren't able to find anything wrong with him. Then one day in eighth grade, he was talking with some friends when he was suddenly overcome with the familiar sensation of being unable to speak, before passing out on his feet. "I just lost my balance, and I was out before I hit the floor," he says. "Next thing I know, I'm in an ambulance." An X-ray finally revealed that Kevin had a big old tumor hanging out inside his head that liked to just switch him off from time to time.
The Preparation Is Bizarre
Prepping for surgery is never pretty, but brain surgery is particularly brutal, seeing as they're cutting right into the delicate pile of meat that contains everything you ever knew or were as a person. You may or may not be required to shave your head, but either way, you will be required to give yourself an antibacterial scrub from head to toe. "The Monday before the surgery, there's these antiseptic wipe things you have to use and they smell really weird," Christie says. "First you shower, and there was like this checklist of 'You wipe this part, you wipe this part' and you just go down your body, and you have to be really careful [afterwards] because it can be [re]contaminated. So if you rest your hand on the counter, oops, you're bacteriafied."
And if you fart once, you have to start all over.
The antibacterial assault doesn't end with a thorough scrub of your nether orifices. "They squirt this iodine stuff up your nose and it has to stay up there," Christie continues. "It's like this long Q-tip thing that they shove up there. ... It itches and it smells like iodine inside your nose and all you wanna do is blow your nose." Note: You can't.
Even well before surgery, there's lots of testing to be done, and sometimes that testing requires patients to adopt the behavior of truck drivers and marathon World Of Warcraft raid leaders. "I had this giant jug of pee in my fridge," Emily says. "I had to pee in it for 24 hours and keep it chilled ... for testing hormone levels." So yeah, getting brain surgery can sometimes require you to keep a jug of urine on ice next to your leftover P.F. Chang's spicy chicken.
Depending on your drinking choices, you may be used to the concept already.
As for the process of mentally preparing yourself for the main event, well, sometimes ignorance is best. It's natural to be curious about exactly what is going to transpire when you finally hire a relative stranger to poke their gloved fingers into your thought palace, and you'd think a good way to defuse your anxiety would be to learn all you can about it.
Emily approached her surgery with this logic in mind. "I watched a video of the surgery being done because I was scared." During a viewing experience that was only slightly less pleasurable than the time she accidentally watched Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Emily found out that, "they go through your nose, cut out a piece of your skull, and then they take a tiny thing that looks like an ice cream scooper up there. Then they took a piece of fat from the stomach and packed fat on top of it and sealed it with glue."
"Don't worry; I'll write a prescription for cheeseburgers to grow it back."
If you'd like to see what that looks like, there are clips all over YouTube, both of the "up-the-nose" and "not-up-the-nose" variety. But if you're too horrified to go searching for video of brain surgeries, you'd better hope you never end up with front row tickets to the live event, because ...
You're (Mostly) Awake The Whole Time
Brain surgeries are performed using what is called "twilight anesthesia" -- basically, you're drugged, but you're awake for the whole procedure. This is necessary during certain surgeries to monitor your reactions and adjust accordingly, especially when they're elbow-deep in the place that controls your reactions. As you might imagine, being awake to experience the sensation of your skull getting sliced open is turbo weird. "There's this tremendous vibration, it's like a bee inside your skull," Christie says. "I'm not sure if it was the drugs talking or what, but I could have sworn someone told me I had a nice brain as I drifted off to sleep. The drug-induced stupor didn't last long, though. Then it was all 'wake up, wake up, it's time for test stimulation.'"
"So quit having that nightmare about taking a test and get ready to take a test instead!"
Test stimulation is when the surgeons expose different areas of the brain to electrical stimulation to see how the patient responds. "For me," Christie says, "this area was the centro-median thalamus ... which allowed me to have one of the most amazing experiences of my life -- I got to hear my own brain activity."
You see, one part of all the medical sorcery surgeons use to figure out exactly what part of your brain they're navigating are electrified probes, which are hooked up to computers to turn brain activity into audible sound. "Judging by the sound coming out of their surgical equipment, the human brain is like a bad radio station," says Christie. "Just full of static."
It's one thing to suddenly be able to hear your brain working, but for Christie, things went full-on Altered States: "As they passed through another area, a distinctive gurgle-like noise popped up," she says. "The best word I could come up with for it was growling, because it sounded a lot like my gurgle-growl tics [one of the outbursts caused by her disorder]. All I could think of at that point was 'Oh my God, my brain's growling at my surgeon.'"
Christie noticed that she experienced one of her tics at the same time as her brain was growling at everyone in the room, so she asked the doctor if what they were hearing was the specific area of skull pudding responsible for her condition. "He said 'As far as we can tell, yes.'"
"And what about this part, making barfing noises?"
"That part browses the Internet."
However, if she hoped to gain superhuman mastery over her brain from all this exploratory mind-electrocution, she was out of luck. "They started asking me how I felt with different levels of stimulation in different areas of the thalamus," Christie says. "The best answer I could muster was 'I dunno, weird?' which was probably not that helpful."
And after all of that ...
You Might End Up With A Mixed Bag Of Uncertainty, Fear, And Modest Improvement
Emily went into early menopause as a result of her brain tumor. "I was told at 19 years old that I'd never be able to have kids," she says. You might think that once the angry little bastard was removed, the tumor would stop screwing with her body, and you would be entirely wrong. "My hormones are still super jacked up," she says. "I [won't] get a period for like a year and then [I'll] get a month-long, terrible one." Even after the surgery, the tumor's ghost was still up there rattling chains.
Or opening elevator doors if you will.
But hey, at least her brain tumor situation is sorted out -- for now. Another tumor could pop back up at any time like a horrifying game of whack-a-mole, but the price of a regular checkup is steep. "I'm supposed to get MRIs every six months, but they cost thousands of dollars," Emily says. Instead, post-op brain surgery patients play a different yet no less delightful game called Tumor or No Tumor. "Anytime I get a migraine," she says, "it's a real fear that [the tumor has] come back."
And now all of you with headaches are just as scared.
Luckily for Christie, six months after the surgery she experienced a 50 percent improvement on the severity of her symptoms. "Sure, that might not sound like much ... but in more real-world terms, I can function. I'm not getting stranded places with my powerchair because I can't see. I don't even need a wheelchair anymore. I can drive now, and I have a job for the first time in my life, and I'm looking at transferring to another college and going back to school. And my service dog doesn't have to guide me anymore."
... Or You Might End Up With Superpowers
As a result of his brain surgery, Kevin now has a pair of shiny bolts in his head, which he considers to be one of the high points of his experience. In addition to making him look super badass, the bolts allow him to predict the weather, much in the same way someone with arthritis can. It's not entirely fun, because according to Kevin it involves a "centralized migraine whenever there's a change in barometric pressure." Basically, his brain shrieks at him whenever a storm is on its way. It's not the first superpower you might pick, but it's a pretty neat trick if the weather app on your smartphone quits working.
We don't know his brain waves can cause storms, but we're assuming so.
However, because of this pressure sensitivity, one thing Kevin can never, ever do is go skydiving. Why, you ask? Because the sudden change in pressure might cause the bolt in his head to explode.
Because mindflesh is a strange and mysterious thing, Kevin also discovered that having a tumor in the specific location of the brain where his was located can mess with your physical development. In Kevin's case, it meant he had a full beard at 15 years old. One of the doctors told him that he "made him feel like Doogie Howser, because I already had a beard and he was struggling to grow one." Basically, his brain tumor turned Kevin into a human weather vane as portrayed by Ron Swanson. All things considered, it could've been worse.
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For more insider perspectives, check out Major Surgery With No Painkillers: 5 Things I Learned and 5 Things Your Doctor Really Wants To Say To You (But Won't).
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