We all fall down. Sometimes it’s because of our own mistakes, or bad decisions and sometimes because of outside forces, elements out of our control. But the true, deep meaning of life is how you get back up. It’s your courage and inspiration which gives hope to others. You prove to those around you how you can fight the fight and breathe life into every second you have to live.
This is The Sunday Series.
The Sunday Series (46): Gray Matters
Lisa Oster has literally changed the lives of countless special education students in Baltimore County, Maryland. For more than a decade she has worked tirelessly teaching and helping these students to improve their minds and the quality of their lives. And it has served as one of the single greatest inspirations in Lisa’s own life, to not give up on herself… in order to be there for them. It’s been no easy task, but what meaningful contribution in life ever is.
It’s been Lisa’s own life which has been threatened since the week of her birthday last February. Leading up to that week there were the unexplained occurrences: trouble walking, memory lapses, migraines, depression. All were treated with medications, some errant diagnosis and treatment which worked as a Band-Aid instead of getting to the heart of the matter. Pretty soon there was tingling, numbness, light-headedness, nausea and then seizures, sometimes happening during school hours. The health issues were affecting Lisa’s ability to work effectively, and to be there for the benefit of her students. The most troubling part were the seizures, and so for the first time in all this time an MRI was ordered. The results told the story – a Grade 2 Oligodendroglioma – a brain tumor. The day Lisa was informed of this earth-shattering news she immediately called her husband Mark. Mark says at that moment, “everything just changed, our family life, Lisa’s life, all of our priorities changed.”
They say in life change is inevitable, growth is optional. In this case, it was the other way around. What apparently had been growing for years was about to change many lives. Lisa’s type of tumor is generally slow-developing and can be present for years before its diagnosed. The Oster’s primary care physician told them there was no way she could, or would perform surgery on the tumor, it was wrapped in some critical blood vessels, so Lisa was referred to specialists at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Mark says it was the best move they could have made. “The doctors were incredible. They did a two hour MRI of Lisa’s brain. They mapped out every function of her brain to make sure they didn’t disturb any critical areas she might need. It was very precise.” The decision was made to go in and get the tumor out, at least as much as they could. The surgery, February 28th of this year, removed 80% of the mass, but a piece of the tumor remains… and there were complications.
The surgery inside the brain is an incredibly delicate procedure and what happens in only one-percent of cases happened to Lisa, she suffered a stroke, losing feeling on her left side. The complication meant her stay at the hospital would be much longer – a month – and countless hours of rehab. The hours away from home were especially difficult for the Oster’s 10-year-old daughter Alyssa. “Our daughter was probably impacted the most because of her age and her level of understanding”, says Mark. “But basically she couldn’t see her mother for a month and was getting bounced around to family and friends, she didn’t really understand what was going on.”
Fear has permeated the Oster’s family existence before and after surgery, and is heightened by the prognosis that comes with this type of tumor. Five to ten. It sounds like the sentence a judge would hand out in a criminal justice trial – in this case it’s the amount of years most people with this same brain tumor normally survive. And then there’s the issue of the remaining piece of the tumor in the brain. The bi-monthly scans to make sure the remaining piece has not grown keep everyone on edge, because it’s nearly impossible to go back in and remove it. If it changes, the doctors would need to be aggressive with treatment, yet until they feel Lisa has fully recovered from her stroke they have put off any radiation or chemotherapy treatments to fight the remaining mass. All of this effects life moving forward. It gets hard to think about forever, when perhaps you’ve only got today.
But it’s this same uncertainty, this same fear which drives Lisa on her comeback. The stroke has made the recovery a much longer process, but it’s the process which Lisa has made her own. It’s the fight she is winning, the determination to live as normal an existence as possible which drives her and her desire to do what she loves, working to enhance the lives of the special education students she teaches each day at Timber Grove Elementary School.
“I have worked so hard to get back to work because I have made such a difference in the lives of these kids”, says Lisa. Mark agrees. “She could have taken disability or early retirement from the county, but she has so much pride and desire to help these kids she didn’t want to do that”, he says. “One of her goals in therapy was ‘I am going back to work’. She went back this past August, (at the start of the school year). The doctors signed off on it and told her she has come so much further than they ever expected. Her goal was to go back to work and become a very productive member of the family. I was very impressed by it, the doctors were impressed by it.” Lisa actually got kicked out of her outpatient rehab facility because she was working too hard, literally walking the halls all night just to keep the rehab going 24/7. Now she does three hours of rehab a day at home.
And it’s working. Mark says if you could have seen his wife as recently as June, to where she is today, you would be amazed. Lisa still has trouble holding things in her left hand, sometimes she drops things, she can have trouble swallowing on the left side and there is memory loss, but Lisa can drive to school most days and is doing the best she can at the job she loves. Yet she wants others to know appearances can be deceiving. “People think you are out of the hospital, you are driving back to work so you must be fine. That’s not the case”, says Lisa. “There are still the emotions, the rehabilitation. The other day a teacher tossed me a set of keys and I caught them with my left hand and everyone was so excited. I have some very close people I see out of work, the librarian at the school and another teacher and every day they come to the classroom to see if I’m OK and if I need anything. Some people go above and beyond.”
“It’s a whole different world”, says Lisa. “Life doesn’t go back to normal, you want it to but it doesn’t. It’s scary and it’s frightening. I know I’m not the only person out there, but it doesn’t make me any less fearful. I have three children, ages 22, 20 and 10. They are all concerned. I don’t want them to stop living their lives because their Mom is going through this. I don’t want to take anything from their lives.”
It is life that Lisa and Mark realize is so precious and understand they need to become advocates so what happened to Lisa might not happen to others. Mark believes, “if there were more routine screenings for this (MRI’s of the brain), we’d be able to catch it early. Problems with the brain can affect places all over your body.”
Lisa says medical technology has come a long way, but the awareness for brain cancer has not. “And my life expectancy that might still be 5 to 10 years…I might be long gone before that changes”, she says. “I have joined Facebook groups where people still have the part of the tumor inside them and are alive after 15 years. I live my life day to day and I try to make the most of it and think positive at home and on my job. I have someone at the American Brain Tumor Association, (http://www.abta.org/), who connected me with another patient who has the same type of tumor I do and she understands what I go through every day, the triumphs and the heartache.”
Lisa continues, “I took a lot of things for granted before this happened to me. you can’t do that. There are so many things on a daily basis that people take for granted.” Activities as simple as taking the dog for a walk, or attending your daughter’s events as school. But Lisa says, “no matter what goes on in life, you can’t give up. I want to be strong especially for my 10-year-old daughter. I want her to be strong, to show you her you can’t give up. Sometimes I will just say to myself the tumor is not going to win. It’s very unsettling this happened, but I want to live. I was one of the few who has been able to get back to work. I wanted to because the thought I might not be able to do this was the driving force to get me back and do the work I love.”
To love, serve and care. It doesn’t matter if that gray matter in Lisa’s brain has been affected by illness – it’s what’s in her heart that can’t be stopped. It all matters, if you believe you do too.
Until next time, thanks for taking the time.
Mark Brodinsky, Author, Blogger, Financial Services
Author of the #1 Amazon Best-Seller, It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story
For comments, ideas or suggestions for The Sunday Series, connect with Mark on social media, or e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org