My daughter inherited the shape of my eyes and my short stature. She has my dry sense of humor and quick trigger temper. She has my small hands, dark hair, and pale complexion. She has also has my migraines.
The first time she came to me with her symptoms in her teens, I wrote it off as a one-time hormone headache. Wishful thinking, I suppose. The second, third and 20th times, I began to fear the worst. I booked her an appointment with my doctor, a man who understood how tricky migraines can be and had seen first-hand just how many treatments I personally had tried and failed.
She was a pink-cheeked college freshman the year she started her first prophylactic medication. I was horrified at the prospect of my little girl taking this poison. But, initially, she found relief and I hoped it would be different for her. Unfortunately, a few months later she discovered how debilitating side effects can be, even when the medicine actually works. She was faced with the first of many unfair decisions those of us with chronic illness face – which is worse, the cure or the disease?
As a nursing student in an unforgiving program, she decided she could not risk the “dopamax” effecting her grades and ceased use of the medication. She tried birth control to little avail. She couldn’t afford to be drowsy and learned the hard way about rebound headaches. Now in her senior year, mere months away from graduation, her headaches have recently returned full force and seem to be escalating despite her efforts, a story all too familiar. And it breaks my heart.
My phone rang this morning and I had a sense that something was wrong before I even answered, this handy mother juju I have developed when it comes to my children.
“I’m scared, Mom,” she cried in broken, clipped words. “My brain… I can’t. Mom, I’m scared.”
Today, my daughter is 21, a college senior ready to tackle the world. She shouldn’t be calling me in neurological distress. She shouldn’t have to be scared. She should be drinking with her friends and dancing at a nightclub. She should be carefree and healthy and happy and making wild trips to Mexico for the weekend. She shouldn’t have to worry that if she doesn’t eat well, or doesn’t sleep enough, or if the barometric pressure rises that she will be in abject torture from a migraine. She should not feel like she is having a stroke early on a Sunday morning.
“Calm down,” I said, trying to hide my fear, my instant guilt for passing this along to her. I wouldn’t wish my disease on my worst enemy much less one of my favorite people in the world. “We will figure this out.”
I have begged her repeatedly to take better care of herself, to avoid triggers, to find a better way to manage her headaches before she reaches that point of no return, before she becomes like me where there is nothing left to try. She is a vibrant young lady and doesn’t like to listen to her mother; I am a nag. She knows I mean well, she’ll tell me, but reminds me that she isn’t me and that she’s a grown up. Yet, this morning the inner strength that shines from inside her normally was gone from her voice and replaced with terror and confusion.
“I can’t… the words,” she sobbed, fear evident in her trembling voice. “My brain…won’t work. What do I do, Mom?”
It was my worst nightmare. It was like she’d pulled a page from my worst memories and chosen to relive it in 3D Technicolor. She had awoken this morning, unable to form sentences – symptoms of a mini stroke, common for migraine with aura patients. She was struggling with aphasia, having extreme difficulty searching for simple words like “comforter” and “phone.” Her vision was blurry and she was very confused, she said.
My heart thudded to a stop and my hands began to shake. I walked her boyfriend through the most basic of neurological exams, after all these years I should know them by heart. I asked a million questions and he tried his best to answer when she could not. I advised him to get her up and to the urgent care clinic, then hung up.
Tears came to my eyes as I stared out the window at the early morning landscape, seeing only see a reflection of the past. I remember those first terrifying migraines when my body betrayed me and I felt helpless, my control stolen by some unseen force. I remember the disorientation and the panic when I discovered there was no cure to the pain that intensified for days on end. I remember thinking, years before it became true, that my life was never going to be the same and how unfair it was that I was already old in my 20s. I remember beseeching my doctor to tell me that my children would not inherit this horror from me the way I inherited it from my mother. But he could only say, “Maybe.” That maybe was my flicker of hope, even after her diagnosis was made. Maybe I didn’t pass on my disease to my children, or at least it wouldn’t be as bad. Maybe they would be stronger than me. Maybe science would find a cure in their lifetime for the pain, even if not in mine. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
I snapped back from my reverie and picked up the phone, dialing a familiar number. My daughter picked up. I urged her to go directly to the hospital, not wasting another precious moment. I wasn’t willing to gamble with her life like I had with my own. I named off tests to suggest and gave her boyfriend a list of symptoms and family history he needed to tell the doctor. By the time she arrived at the hospital, her blood pressure was high and her pain intense. They performed the scans and started an IV for pain medicine. She was panicked, even though her tests results were clean. There is no stroke, just a migraine and the advice she spend years in expensive neurological follow-ups. She knows all too well what this means; she has watched me struggle for most of her life.
My daughter is sleeping now, blissfully pain-free, even if only for an afternoon. She has inherited more from me than I ever imagined that day the doctor first laid her in my arms. She has my rosy cheeks and Cupid’s bow upper lip. She has my soft heart, always hurting for others and fighting for the underdog. She has my dorky yet infectious laugh and employs it often. She also has my chronic disease.
My daughter has been the unlucky beneficiary of daily pain, devastating auras, unmanageable attacks and unseen complications that will haunt her for the rest of her young life. But she also inherited my sheer stubbornness and won’t easily give up fighting for the life she wants. She has my years of knowledge and I’ll be her best advocate as we fight this disease together. I’ll be right here whenever she needs me, because I’ve given up enough of my life to migraine and won’t let it take my daughter, too.
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