Beth Girdler: Doing It Naturally
Beth Girdler
Beth Girdler
is a naturalist based in Ayer's Cliff, Quebec.

Her previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 04.11.01
Ayer's Cliff, Quebec


My father's sudden condition

This column is about human nature, human biology, and the man who taught me much of what I know about the natural world.

In the month of March, my father, Eric Girdler, began showing mild signs of memory loss. At first my family - mother, sister, three brothers, and I - attributed this loss to a slight hearing impairment. We thought perhaps he was simply missing parts of our conversations.

Two weekends ago, his memory loss progressed to forgetting recent events and key words and was accompanied by bouts of emotional upheaval. We wondered if my father was suffering from a form of depression following his retirement.

I was visiting at the time and my mother and I decided to watch his condition closely and wait.

I returned to Quebec unsettled. Last Monday, my father went to his doctor with concerns about headaches, depression, and memory loss. The doctor booked him for blood tests and a CT scan for April 3. On Wednesday my mother phoned, quite alarmed because my father was forgetting basic information - where a nearby street was, his bank account number, how to recycle (something he is meticulous about). He was aware that something serious was going wrong with his mind and was very frightened. Alzheimer's, a tumor, or stroke, all thoroughly scary scenarios, were zooming around in my head like a bird in the house.

By Thursday morning, things were much worse and my mother and brother took my father to the local hospital. I drove (faster than I should have) from Quebec back to Lindsay. When I arrived my father was in a bad way, unable to complete a single sentence, he was confused and repeated unfinished statements and actions over and over. He was emotional and unstable on his feet. Two more of my brothers and my sister joined us. It was disturbing to see this tall, handsome, proud man so disabled in such a short time. Many covert tears were shed.

The results of the CT scan revealed the startling explanation for my father's rapid decline. "...a huge subdural haematoma... with a thickness of 34 mm. There is a considerable mass effect with shifting of the midline structures across to the right side by as much as 15 mm."

The soft and fragile brain is a complicated and essential organ. It is encased by the skull and protected by three membranes, the dura mater, arachnoid, and pia mater.

Toward the end of February, my father slipped and fell on a patch of ice, banging the back of his head. His doctor could find no sign of injury and the incident was dismissed. Apparently, however, the fall did cause tearing of blood vessels in the protective membranes of his brain and a haematoma (a semi-solid mass of blood) developed in the space beneath the dura mater. As the bleeding continued, pressure on the brain increased and the whole brain shifted position.

If you look at a map of the human brain you will see that certain areas control specific functions. The pressure on my father's brain was located over the speech centre and was spreading to the area controlling movement on the right side of his body.

Friday night, my father was sent with my mother by ambulance to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto where he was admitted to the neurosurgery ward. We children met them there and a surgeon showed us the CT scan and explained the reason for our father's behavior and the procedure to remove the blood. A small hole would be made in his skull and a tube inserted into the subdural space where the blood had collected. His scalp would then be stitched up with the tube, leading from inside his brain to a collecting container on the outside, remaining in place for a few days to siphon off the blood. The surgeon then told us that since the bleeding was not in brain tissue, his chances of recovery were good and if all went well my dad would return to his pre-injury state. He also said that without the operation, brain damage and death could result.

That night was particularly upsetting as my father became completely confused and unable to control his right arm or leg. He kept saying "This is enough!" and trying to leave. Amazingly, under the circumstances, he remained gentlemanly and polite and never forgot who we were. In the wee hours of Saturday he told my mother to "tell the babies to go home," referring to his five adult children.

Saturday morning dawned bright and fair. While the outside world was eating breakfast, brushing teeth, or getting ready for work, our father was wheeled away for life-saving brain surgery. We were tired but together. To keep thoughts of any negative outcome at bay we took turns recalling humorous family stories and jokes, often adding the sentiment that we really should get together more often. Two hours later we were called back to his room, not sure what we would find. What we encountered was nothing short of a miracle! There sat my father with a bandaged head, smiling, talking normally and asking what had happened. He had the use of both hands and legs and when he said he was hungry, we knew all was right in his world and ours.

Three days after his operation, my father is home, looking, with his stapled incision, like a kinder, gentler Frankenstein. He was just marveling at what he had been through over the last two weeks. Settled into his favorite chair, he is about to read the sports section of the newspaper. He wants to find out what is happening to his beloved Blue Jays. He and I are looking forward to a good game of crib tonight. Life is precious and unpredictable, isn't it?