BEN STOCKING HAS A HOLE IN HIS HEAD, PART I, A CHRONICLE OF MY BRAIN SURGERY
Let me tell you about the hole in my head, and the peculiar cranium it exposed.
The opening — freshly cut — is just behind my right ear. Shaped like an inverted crescent moon, it stretches in a four-inch arc from behind my earlobe up towards my temple. Dr. Ryder Gwinn, a neurosurgeon wielding a drill, cracked me apart like a coconut. He was much more precise in his handiwork than a chimp smashing fruit, but the end result was the same: a hairy orb roughly the size of a bowling ball cleaved asunder, with its meat, fiber, fluid, veins and arteries exposed to the elements for the very first time.
After peeling back my scalp, Dr. Gwinn carved out a piece of my skull the size of a silver dollar and spent several hours rearranging my nerves and arteries, as an electrician might rewire your living room. Then he replaced the missing skull fragment, popped a titanium plate in my head and sealed me back up with screws, stitches and glue.
Hours later, in intensive care, the nurses gushed about my incision. “It’s a classic Dr. Gwynn slice,” one of them said. “It looks beautiful,” chimed another. “Perfect.”
Maxed out on morphine, I barely absorbed the hosannahs, but I did feel a vague rush of pride about my elegant wound.
Unfortunately, I could also feel the right side of my face twitching violently.
The whole point of my head-splitting adventure had been to banish the twitch, otherwise known as a “hemifacial spasm,” a rare affliction affecting 0.8 of every 100,000 people that makes its victims twitch uncontrollably on one side of their face.
It starts out innocently enough, occasional faint jerks at the corner of your eye. Gone in an instant, quickly forgotten, they strike just a few times a week, then a few times a day. “Jesus,” you say to yourself eventually. “I’ve got a twitch.”
Gradually, jerks become gyrations, and before you know it, the spasms begin to strike every hour or so. They move beyond your eye and envelop an entire side of your face. Your mouth starts sliding over towards your ear. Your eye starts to close, and people think you’re winking at them for no reason. Your nose joins the revelry, making you look like a bunny sniffing vegetables in the neighbor’s garden.
Eventually, you spend half your day in this state, the spasms timed to produce maximum embarrassment — erupting during job interviews, parties, and social exchanges of all kinds.
Every transaction at the corner store unleashed a new round of contortions, and I couldn’t order a latte without a renewed explosion. Baristas looked at me with pity.
After three years of this torture — sometime before I looked like a mutant rabbit but long after I looked pretty damn weird — I went to see a doctor. To my surprise, he told me that the common treatment for my condition was Botox. If you pump enough of it into the stricken side of your face, it freezes the twitch.
The doctor gave me 14 injections in all, eight of them around the perimeter of my eye, the remainder in other strategic locations around my face. Sure enough, this stopped the twitching — or at least the appearance of twitching. Inside, I could still feel myself convulsing away.
While half my face was suddenly wrinkle-free, the other had the same middle-aged, grizzled look that nature intended. It sagged like chicken flesh while the Botox side seemed to defy gravity. I found myself drooling from the Botox side from time to time, and inadvertently chewing up the inside of my age-defying cheek, as you might after the dentist shoots you full of Novocaine. The Botox would last for about three months, and then I’d have to endure another round of injections, which sometimes left me with a black eye.
Dear Reader, did you know that Botox is made from the same highly toxic food-borne bacterium that causes botulism, an illness that causes paralysis or death? If you’re unfortunate enough to eat some rancid pork or chicken, the stuff can freeze up your lungs and make you stop breathing. Rest In Peace.
After three years of filling my face with a highly refined version of this poison, I concluded that anyone who voluntarily subjects themselves to such torture is stark raving mad.
For my next treatment, I decided to go the natural route: acupuncture and Chinese herbs dispensed by Dr. Vaughn Wu, a tiny half-Thai, half-Lao woman who poked, prodded and punctured my body with needles. The treatment did ease my symptoms — the frequency of my twitching was reduced by about 15 percent. But 15 percent better than horrific is still pretty god-awful. I eventually abandoned this treatment and despaired of ever finding one that worked.
For the next year, I just let myself twitch away. My life morphed into one gigantic, never-ending facial convulsion.
It was time to consider the treatment of last resort: brain surgery. If I underwent a procedure called “microvascular decompression,” the doctors said, I had an 80 percent chance of obliterating the twitch. (And a 3 percent chance of losing my hearing in one ear or suffering a stroke or vertigo for the rest of my life.)
I went to Dr. Gwynn, the man with the drill and the scalpel.
“Make this stop,” I told him. “Rewire my cranium. Crack my coconut.”