I don’t know much about nerves, except now I know there are a lot of nerves in the human head. And one thing I do know about nerves is they have something to do with pain. So in a hypothetical, epic-length saga about the treatment of mysterious and severe headaches, it makes sense that doctors would think to do things with nerves. However, WHAT the doctors decide to do with the nerves makes this epic-length saga worth following.
The first time I came into the hospital with a headache, they did not take it super seriously. So they gave me what is called a “migraine cocktail” (a bunch of drugs that make you feel really weird) in the ER, then they sent me home. I told them upon leaving that I still had a headache, but they said “Go home, go to sleep, and it will go away soon.” (Let the careful reader take heed of how simple this sounds.)
Two weeks later, I came back. They did take me much more seriously the second time around, which I appreciated. The first indication of the seriousness was them asking me to put on a hospital gown this time. This made me wonder what exactly they intended to do to fix my headache attack, because it was contained to my head, and the hospital gown seemed to not go any higher than my neck. My imagination was not kindled enough by this unanswered question to come up with ideas about what they’d do to me, because I was busy having a headache attack. But if my imagination had been sparked, I guarantee that there is neither enough imagination in my head nor is there enough imagination the whole world to think of what my ER doctor thought to do. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the lidocaine walrus.
We begin our story of the lidocaine walrus where any normal story begins: two Q-tips, a mysterious liquid that numbs everything it touches, and a very enthusiastic medical resident. The medical resident was in fact one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met in my entire life…at the end of her 12-hour shift, she was still smiling and very excited to inject lidocaine into my left temple. I was cool with the plan, because I was unaware of what other options existed, and my head hurt. So after getting my approval, she disappeared for a short-ish amount of time (we’re on hospital time in the ER, remember), but when she returned, her boss (the attending) was with her. The attending seemed less excited about injecting lidocaine directly into my head, like any normal person. But this attending did also have an imagination, because she recommend an alternative: soak Q-tips in lidocaine and stick them up my nose. This, in theory, covers the nerve bundles at the back of my nostrils with a numbing agent and thereby stops my head from hurting. A traditional approach? I think not, but I was interested in this needle-less plan to no pain. The resident was likewise interested, and mentioned she’s never tried lidocaine walrus-ing someone before. She rushed out of the room with a childlike, somewhat magical grin on her face, like a kid walking into Disneyland for the first time.
When the resident returned, she had looooong Q-tips, two vials of lidocaine, and a downright contagious sense of anticipation. “I looked this procedure up online just now, and it seems super fun!” she says. I thought in the moment that it’s probably not a good thing that I’m about to be a lidocaine walrus guinea pig, and it’s also probably not ideal that the resident had to Google exactly how to lidocaine walrus someone. But I was altogether unconcerned, due to some mixture of optionless-ness and the aforementioned contagious sense of anticipation. She doused the Q-tips, then gingerly moved them way up my nose, then left for 10 minutes while I soaked my nerves and enjoyed being a walrus.
There were zero pictures taken during these 10 minutes, and Cory was the only witness, other than the super excited resident. So I must leave the rest of this story to your imagination.
Let’s fast forward a month and a half, to my next nerve-related procedure: the occipital nerve block. This one is more needle-y, I’m warning you now in case you want to stop reading. (Mom, I’m looking at you, if you even read my blog.)
The idea of an occipital nerve block is two of the nerves that run over the head get fed a large amount of liquid steroid via syringe injection and then everyone hopes for the best. The ideal place for injecting these large amounts of liquid steroids (other than nowhere) is at the spot where these nerves exit the neck muscles, at the back of the head. When I scheduled this procedure, I knew needles were involved, and I actually signed up for a second procedure to be done at the same time, which involved more needles. Because when it comes to Draco, I like to go for broke and try every headache elimination strategy I hear, needles or no needles.
An anesthesiologist performed the occipital block. He told me that he doesn’t tend to knock people out when he’s on rotation at the pain management clinic, which is a huge bummer because having an anesthesiologist do something to you that doesn’t involve you sleeping feels like a huge waste of time. I wanted to ask if he was allowed to knock me out before he did the needle stuff, but he never mentioned the option, and I didn’t want to look like an anesthesia addict. He did turn to Cory and said that family members are usually asked to leave for these procedures, because they don’t want to deal with fainting family members. I guess Cory looked tough enough to handle the situation, so they didn’t make him leave. But this exchange begged the question: If he is a fainting risk, what will that make me?? I asked myself this question not with fear but with optimism, because if the anesthesia-less anesthesiologist wasn’t going to help me out, perhaps I could faint quickly instead!
Unfortunately, my pain tolerance threshold has increased significantly over the past few months. Old Natalie probably would have fainted at some point during the injections to the nerves, even though lidocaine was involved this time around, too. New Natalie was able to power through that plus the second procedure with only some lightheadedness, though I did ask to lay down halfway through it. Not fainting is not the worst thing about the past few months, obviously, but this did make me question whether endurance is actually a good quality to have in every situation.
Cory, who remains the only non-doctor witness of all my nerve-y procedures, held my hands during the occipital block and whispered, “You’re so brave, Natalie.” He often says this when I’m going through something objectively difficult, which is often lately. He didn’t say this during the lidocaine walrus-ing, because that was funny the entire time and involved no needles. But anyway, Cory is such a sweet guy, I’m glad to have him. But every time he tells me that I’m brave, I get a little bewildered. Brave? Why does he pick the word brave? Why not tired? Or wildly attractive? Or clearly in pain? These adjectives all feel like they fit better than “brave” does. Brave is what people are when they choose to do something scary, not when the scary thing chooses them. When the scary thing chooses them, they’re just…unlucky. Unfortunate. Pitiful. Miserable.
But as I was thinking over what to say in this post, and whether to be whimsical or inspiring, I realized that CORY MIGHT BE RIGHT ABOUT SOMETHING. Bravery, specifically.
Because a wise king once said this:
“Simba, I’m only brave when I have to be.”
That’s right, it’s Mufasa, from my ultimate favorite movie, The Lion King. Mufasa said this after rescuing Simba from the hyenas in the elephant graveyard, when Simba said that he went looking for trouble because he wanted to practice being brave. Mufasa then explained to his cub that bravery isn’t orchestrated or planned ahead of time; bravery is what is quickly demanded of you when you wish it wasn’t, when you’re afraid and desperate for another way out but there isn’t one.
So I have been quite unlucky, there is no doubt. I’ve felt cornered and out of options a lot recently. But maybe I am brave, sometimes, when I choose the only choice I have instead of choosing to do nothing. Like when I choose to go for broke and get needles in my head (or Q-tips up my nose) instead of deciding I won’t. Or when I choose to have hope instead of giving up. Or when I choose to have joy on the hard days instead of being grumpy. Or when I choose to believe that a loving God exists instead of letting the hurt I feel blind me to the truth. Jesus had to make similar choices, but his needles were in a crown of thorns, his giving up would have changed all of history, and his hardest days were very, very hard.
Maybe these sorts of choices define bravery. Or maybe I’m just a lidocaine walrus and you should be very concerned about me turning my head too quickly and accidentally stabbing you with a Q-tip. It’s hard to say.