Wednesday, February 04, 2004

A fighter

Some of you have relayed to me impressive stories of people you know who have fought back against serious diseases. And those stories inspire me. A friend send me this one, about his grandmother, who passed away only very recently:

My grandma has suffered from a brain tumor for most of her life. It may have started one of two ways with her. When she was a very young girl, living in rural Poland in what is now the Ukraine (in fact terrifyingly close to Chernobyl), she living in a convent. Both her parents were dead, and at this time she had no knowledge of her family history.

To digress somewhat, she was about to be adopted by a rather rich noble Polish family, but instead she ran away. In the process of running away she broke into the records room and discovered that she actually owned quite a reasonable farm near the convent, and that her two brothers (who she never knew were her brothers) were keeping all this secret with the help of the nuns so that they could keep the land. She started a legal action against them, walking 40km through a thick forest every day to the nearest town with a court. Eventually she won the land which was rightfully hers, and did well for herself as a farmer. She was so successful, in fact, that her house was the first in the area to have glass windows. Unfortunately very soon after that the sky suddenly filled with planes and tanks came roaring over the hills. Her description of the invasion is rather amazing - much of rural Poland at the time was very isolated, and they had no idea that war was imminent. Furthermore, they had never seen a plane before in their lives, and even seeing a car was an event much talked about. Everybody, of course, was still using horse and cart (as indeed they were back on our farm near Krakow the first time we visited in the early 90's). You can imagine how horrifying an event the invasion must have seemed.

Anyway, after that long digression, back to the point. One day whilst she was at the convent, she had wondered off into the next valley and was sitting by a tree. An old man, well known in the area for molesting young girls, crept up and tried to have his way with her. She resisted, in the course of which he inflicted rather savage injuries to her head which his heavy wooden walking stick. Of course there was no penalty for this old man - there was no police in such areas, and the influence of the church had rather managed to twist the blame onto the girls rather than the man. She spent several months in hospital recovering. Apparently her injuries were quite severe.

The second incident which doctors feel could have caused her tumor happened at the end of the war. At this time she was in Germany, having first been captured and used as slave labour by the Russians, then the Germans, then the Russians, and now finally the Germans. Over the course of the war she had been sent to such varied places as Kazakhstan (where she survived, although on the brink of starvation, by eating raw fish; she now has an intense hatred of fish) and Auschwitz (which she survived by escaping en route - as did my Grandad, on two occasions).

She had been freed from the farm she was working on by the Germans there, because they were aware that the Allies would be arriving soon and didn't want the damning evidence of their actions hanging around. She hid in the woods near the farm and at night would break into the building and steal food. Justifiably she felt entitled. One night she was returning with a huge cheese when the Allies arrived. She was caught in a little battle. The story goes that she crossed back to the woods regardless of the danger, carrying this huge cheese above her head, bullets whizzing around her. When she got back to the woods, unhurt, the cheese was peppered with bullet holes!

A few nights later (the next night?) she was in the local town, and the Allies were there, getting drunk (as you would expect them to do) and celebrating. Some drunken troops in a jeep drove straight into her without seeming to see her, leaving her for dead on the road. She ended up in hospital for several months. Her skull had been split open and mud and earth had gotten deep into the wound.

She was first diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was living in England, and my dad was a young boy. At the time she was working 17 hour shifts in a cotton mill, but her coordination was rapidly going, as was her ability to construct sentences (she would know what she wanted to say, but would be unable to say it). She was also suffering from enormous head-aches. She was operated on. The tumor was at a very advanced stage, and the doctors didn't think she had much of a chance, but she survived. As a consequence of the operation she was paralyzed down the right-hand side of her face, but that is really only visible if you look at her mouth. Only one half expresses itself.

She had another operation around 25-ish years ago - the tumor had grown back, and she had yet another operation a few years ago. This final operation was, of course, during my life time. She was very old then (late 70's) and the doctors didn't fancy her chances. In fact they were certain she would die. But she didn't. She made an astonishing recovery, and after the operation she was like a new person. She would interact fully, talk profusely, and generally was like an astonishingly healthy old person (for she has always been incredibly strong physically - her hands have a grip like iron - and I imagine she is mentally as tough as old boots).

Unfortunately recently her health has collapsed rather dramatically. A couple of months ago she was admitted to hospital. It seems that her tumor has grown back, and this time the doctors aren't prepared to operate. They say she is so old she will certainly die (she is 85). Instead they gave her lots of drugs, and plenty of steroids. Just before Christmas she was allowed to return home. We moved her bed down stairs (for steps were impossible for her) and the hospital provided a commode and two nurses who would visit every morning and evening to dress and undress her. Whilst we were in Warsaw, on Boxing Day, she collapsed and was rushed back into hospital. She's still there now. If she survives to see 2005 that would be a miracle, and I'm not sure I would want it to happen. She is incapable of speaking coherently, even in Polish or German, and she requires help eating and going to the toilet. She seems incredibly sad and frustrated. The doctors are filling her with tablets to extend her life as long as they can.

Anyway, although that may not be the happiest of endings to my story, you can see that really there is a reassuring theme throughout. She never had the benefit of modern medical treatment in the crucial early days. Every time the tumor has been caught in an advanced stage - particularly on the first the third occasions. She survived a very serious operation three times, the third time as a very old woman. Each time she made a full recovery and became her old self.
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