Today is my Dad’s 70th birthday. Seven decades is not something that my father nor my family take for granted, as there was a very good chance that we could have lost him 15 years ago to a brain tumour that would have gone undetected if not for God’s guiding hand.
The circumstances around the discovery of my father’s brain tumour, and his road to recovery, are uncanny. Some call it mere coincidence. Many call it providential. I see it as an answer to an unbidden prayer that rose within me as I stood in front of the body of St Francis Xavier – exactly a week before my father was diagnosed.
I am forever grateful to the doctors, nurses and therapists who took care of my father across two continents. I am forever grateful to our friends and family, and particularly my mother, whose unassailable faith in God was our pillar of strength. It would have been so easy to panic and fall apart. We didn’t. Somehow we knew God was with us, and we trusted in Him. He gave us strength, He gave us courage, and He gave us peace.
I provide this story as a testimony to a God who does heal. And as a birthday present for my father, who I am so grateful is alive and with us today.
Asking an unbidden prayer
It was a particularly sunny New Year’s Eve, as my parents, brother and I stood in the line of the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, India, waiting to see the body of St Francis Xavier. As the exposition of the Saint’s casket is shown to the public once every ten years, my family had decided to do a 24 hour stop on our train journey between Bombay and Mangalore to receive the blessings from St Francis Xavier.
If I am honest, I was not particularly keen to see St Francis Xavier’s body. I mean, I was grateful that his efforts – and those of other Portuguese priests – led to my family being Catholic. The story of Catholic conversion along the west coast of India is controversial. Nevertheless, centuries later, I will say that I am grateful that my family does know the love of Christ, and can place our trust in Him. But honestly, seeing the body of a saint seemed like an unnecessary fetishisation to me.
The line was long and the sun was hot, and I was grateful. I had spent a semester in Edinburgh as a third-year exchange student, and I was heading back soon enough to start the second semester. My experience in Edinburgh was glorious so far, and I couldn’t think of another time in my life that I was this content. To stand under the festive sun in Goa was just another moment of pure delight.
So I did not know what I should ask for when my mother told me that any prayer that I said in front of St Francis Xavier’s body would be granted. Life was perfect, what would I need? So I just tried to think of Christ, and my gratefulness to Him.
However as I stepped towards the casket and looked at the diminutive body of St Francis Xavier, an unbidden thought came from within me. I remembered hearing the story of a friend whose father had suddenly died from a heart attack. A heart attack that could have been prevented if they had managed to detect it in time.
So as I stood in front of St Francis Xavier, I asked, “Lord, if there is something wrong with my Father, please let us know so we can do something about it.”
As soon as the prayer was said, I forgot all about it.
Answering the unbidden prayer
We went on to Mangalore to celebrate New Year’s with my family.
Whilst we were in Mangalore, my brother asked if he could get an appointment to do an MRI on his knee. He had been playing hockey earlier in the year, and injured it. Though he seemed to have recovered, his knee suddenly became swollen on Christmas Eve, sometime during his flight between Canada (where he was doing the first year of his University) and Saudi Arabia (where my parents lived at the time). Since it was impossible to get an MRI appointment on such short notice in Saudi Arabia, they decided to do the MRI when we came to Mangalore as it was relatively easy to get an appointment in private hospitals there.
While my parents were waiting for my brother during his MRI scan, my dad complained to my mother of fleeting experiences where he felt he had not been able to balance on his right side. It happened two nights in a row – barely a minute each time – while he had been standing near a monument of a cross that is on our ancestral farm.
Since they were waiting at the hospital anyway, my mother suggested he get an appointment with the ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, just in case it was an ear infection. The ENT specialist did diagnose that indeed, my father did have a mild ear infection. But when my dad was relaying other experiences similar to these ones, he also described blanking out while playing tennis. Blanking out was not the right term actually. A more accurate – and less dramatic – description was a blurring of his vision.
However the term ‘blanking out’ concerned the ENT specialist, who asked that my Dad meet the neurologist, Dr Rajesh Shetty. Dr Shetty asked my father to walk in a straight line, and my father couldn’t – as again, my father couldn’t balance on his right side. After describing again the blank out experience, Dr Shetty asked Dad to get an MRI. Fortunately there was an appointment slot open that day, so he went ahead.
During the MRI, they asked my Mum if she would be willing to do a contrast, which involved having a dye injected into his brain so they could better see the results. This all seemed a bit much, particularly since Dad really just did have a minor imbalance. My Dad refused the contrast until he could confirm with our family friend, Dr Lennu D’Souza, that the procedure was safe. Lennu Uncle confirmed to go ahead with the procedure the next day.
I remember that day. My parents seemed oddly quiet when they were dropping my brother and me to the airport, to catch our respective flights back to Toronto and Edinburgh. I did not realise they would be going to the hospital afterwards to do another MRI scan. Indeed, I didn’t even know Dad had been doing MRI scans the day before – I thought the unusually long time they spent in the hospital was only for my brother.
The day after they did the contrast, my parents went to the hospital again to get the results. That’s when they got the news: a benign brain tumour described as meningioma had grown to a size that was putting pressure on my father’s brain stem. It had been growing for the past ten years, and if they didn’t do surgery in the next six months, it was guaranteed that my father would die from his brain stem collapsing due to the pressure from the tumour.
The neurosurgeon said we were lucky the ENT specialist picked up on Dad’s clues to recommend seeing the neurosurgeon. The neurosurgeon asked my Dad to see an audiologist, as he suspected the tumour could be near the ear. The audiologist just happened to be an old friend of Dad’s. He did all the checks and confirmed the tumour was not near Dad’s ears. Thank god for that mild ear infection then.
The need to do neurosurgery was urgent, certainly, and the neurosurgeon recommended where he could get it done in India. But as my Dad’s medical insurance was given by his company in Saudi Arabia, he needed to get clearance from his doctors there. However before leaving India, my Mum’s brother – a doctor trained in Bangalore – insisted that my Dad visit Dr Hegde, the best neurosurgeon in southern India to check the diagnosis. After arriving in Bangalore, they immediately went to see Dr Hegde who took one look at the MRI scan and said this tumour is not meningioma but schwannoma of the lower cranial nerve – meaning the tumour was located on nerves below the ear. Of course, this was all Latin to my parents.
To be described as the best neurosurgeon in the southern part of India, the second most populous country in the world, means that Dr Hegde would have seen many patients, and performed many neurosurgeries. Therefore it continues to be a marvel to me when he said to my parents that it was only because of providence that my father was diagnosed in time for something to be done. Dad was his second patient with this kind of tumour that had been diagnosed in time. Normally they came too late. The tumour was asymptomatic.
A walk of faith
My parents returned to Saudi Arabia, where Dad’s general practitioner, Dr Cheriyan – a family friend – referred him straight to the company’s chief neurosurgeon, Dr Salibi – another friend as well. After doing a series of tests, it was confirmed that this indeed was a schwannoma tumour. Dr Salibi decided to give a medical referral to do the surgery in the US, as it would require the precision of a gamma knife. The medical board of the company gave their approval to do the surgery in the US in less than a month – apparently a record time.
By the beginning of April, the company flew my parents to Houston so they could meet with neurosurgeons based in Houston’s Medical Centre. Houston Medical Centre is an agglomeration of some of the world’s leading hospitals in the fields of surgery, therapy and rehabilitation. My parents met with the head neurosurgeon at Memorial Hermann Hospital, who suggested not to do the gamma knife surgery as their tests had not yet determined whether it was a meningioma or schwannoma. Getting the tumour type right was necessary in order to know what level of radiation the gamma knife needed during the surgery. Using the wrong radiation level on the gamma knife to cut out the tumour could run the risk of making the tumour carcinogenic.
The head surgeon therefore suggested instead to do a skull-based surgery that would be invasive. Fortunately, the hospital had Dr Alp, who was one of eleven neurosurgeons in the whole of the US who specialised in this kind of surgery, and he agreed to take Dad’s case on. A few days before the surgery, the result confirmed that it was indeed a schwannoma tumour. Dr Alp said they could go back to using the gamma knife, but my parents decided to go ahead with the skull-based surgery. They were not going to leave Houston until the tumour was completely out of Dad’s head.
The weekend before Dad’s surgery, my Uncle Jason and Aunt Karen brought their family from New Orleans to Houston to see my parents. They took my Dad to Boot Town, as my Dad insisted on buying matching cowboy boots for my Mum and himself. He wasn’t actually being a tourist. Though he is famous for his tourist buys, like the time he bought bagpipes when my parents dropped me off in Edinburgh – bagpipes that have never left their case and are collecting dust somewhere. My parents are actually avid country line dancers. My Dad’s choice of buying matching cowboy boots with my Mum is a testament of true faith. No one spends that amount of cash on authentic cowboy boots unless they are determined to some day dance in it.
On the 13th of April 2005, my Dad woke up at 4:30 am. He showered, prayed with my Mum and Aunt Karen, who had come back to be with my mother. They did the ten minute walk between their hotel to the Memorial Hermann Hospital, where Dad was prepped for surgery. Apparently with all the medication they had given him, he was seen smiling before going into the operation room at 7:00 am. The last thing he heard was Aunt Karen saying, “Don’t worry Wilfy, it’s all going to be okay.”
About ten hours later, Dr Alp came to tell my Mum and my Aunt Karen and Aunt Rinet – who had also flown in from Massachusetts – that the surgery went well and he was able to remove all of the tumour. They were asked to go to the ICU waiting room, but my Dad did not appear until a few hours later, hooked up to all kinds of monitors and tubes. Dr. Alp later came to tell them the reason for the delay: as they were removing the ventilator from Dad, he started collapsing on the left side and they had to re-intubate him. My Aunt Rinet and Mum went in to see Dad. Dad later told my Mum that he could only hear Aunt Rinet saying, “Bavoji [brother-in-law], Bavoji, wake up Bavoji.”
Losing his nerve
After a day in the ICU, Dad was brought into a regular room. Before then, they could not tell yet what nerve would be damaged as a result of this surgery. The ENT surgeon had already warned them before the surgery that no patient who came out of this kind of surgery would be left unaffected. The tumour was on the nerve, and the nerve would have to be nicked, which would lead to temporary – if not permanent – damage. The implication was that the nerve damage would lead to Dad losing function for whatever the nerve sent signals to the body to perform.
Being aware of that, when my Dad came back into consciousness after the neurosurgery, he couldn’t speak. So the nurse gave him a pen and paper. He wrote, “Which nerve was it?” Classic.
After the surgery, my Mum also asked the ENT surgeon what nerve the tumour had attached itself to. He said, “Well I wish when we opened up his brain the nerves came colour coded.” There were three nerves that hung together, and they would only know which nerve was nicked based on which bodily function my Dad lost as a consequence of the surgery.
It apparently was the vagus nerve, as Dad soon discovered he could not speak nor swallow. This meant his vocal cord was no longer functioning. The vagus nerve also controlled his digestion, so he would have a hard time eating. It also controlled his blood pressure, which meant he would have trouble sitting and standing up without fainting quickly. Lastly, it gave him a lazy eye, leading to double vision.
Before Dad’s surgery, I didn’t realise the primary function of vocal cords is to block the airway when you are eating or drinking, to prevent food or liquids from entering your lungs. The ability to also use the vocal cords to communicate is a happy outcome of evolution. A good reason not to eat and talk at the same time, beyond just manners.
Given the dangers of regular eating with non-functioning vocal cords, Dad was initially fed through a nasal tube. Two weeks after the first surgery, an ENT surgeon took fat from his stomach area and injected it on the vocal cords. It was clear that one vocal cord was paralysed and the surgeon placed it in the ‘shut’ position. This meant that Dad could only make sound with the other vocal cord. Not a completely bad outcome for the rest of us, given how loud Dad roars when he scolds.
After two weeks of nasal tube feeding, a PEG (percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy) tube was placed into his stomach so there could be direct feeding. Now Dad sports two belly buttons – one from his birth, and the other from his second lease on life.
Resting in God’s grace
My parents told my brother and me about my Dad’s tumour a few weeks before they were going to fly to Houston for his surgery. Being typically Indian parents, they did not want either of us to be worried and distracted from our studies, hence the delay in telling us as soon as they found out.
I remember that first call. I was sitting at my desk, struggling to make sense of econometrics – something that I finally understood ten years later, after spending too much time around PhD students doing economics. After my parents told me Dad’s diagnosis, I just sat stunned. I remember walking out of my residence and hiking up Arthur’s Seat, where I often used to go to rest in God’s presence. I remember sitting on a rock on top of Arthur’s Seat, looking down at Edinburgh, twinkling in the twilight.
And I remember having a sense of peace settle within me. I knew I would not lose my father. Not because of this. I felt God’s reassuring presence. He had, after all, answered my unbidden prayer.
My parents insisted that I would stay in Edinburgh and finish my final exams before flying to Houston. That meant that I would not be there when Dad had his first neurosurgery.
I remember the night before his surgery, when Dad and I had spoken to each other on the phone – the last time I would hear him with both his vocal cords working. It was the first time I heard those vocal cords quaver, and he said he loved both Marc and me very much. It is the first time that I remember that he called us his treasures. I think we both realised then that it could be the last time we spoke to each other. It is the most surreal experience having a phone call like that. Knowing it actually could be the last time. To this day, I never end a phone call with my parents without saying I love you.
I spent the day of my Dad’s first surgery in bed, semi-watching Scrubs, and the whole time praying. I cannot say that I was anxious, but I dared not leave my room until I got the phone call from Mum telling me Dad was ok. That phone call eventually came through.
And I walked up Arthur’s Seat again, looked down on Edinburgh below and the sky above, and with grateful praise, thanked God for protecting my father.
Showers of blessings
It had not been easy in the first month after his surgery. They had thought Dad had stabilised after the PEG tube was inserted, so they transferred him to TIRR Memorial, where he could undergo therapy treatment to help with his rehabilitation. Unfortunately, Dad had complications with his digestion. I’ll save you the gory details, but eventually he was vomiting blood – the coffee coloured kind. He was brought back to Memorial Hermann for medical treatment.
I managed to fly to Houston right after my last exam in the beginning of May. I remember walking into the room at Memorial Hermann to see my father sitting semi-upright in his bed, this time with a very diminished pot belly. I don’t ever remember a time in my life that I saw my Dad without a protruding stomach. But in fact, his whole body seemed to have shrunk, and his skin seemed to hang from him. He swung his head towards me, with one eye covered by an eye patch – thanks to the double vision. There was something unnerving in seeing this man – someone who was larger than life to me – so weakened and vulnerable. What reassured me was his unmistakable smile – a genetic gift that he had passed onto me, making me unmistakably his daughter. I responded with my own.
Dad had another surgery to determine whether they needed to clear an artery going to his stomach, which could be the reason for the complication. It turned out this wasn’t needed, but they put him under supervision for two weeks at the hospital until things settled.
Dad was able to return to TIRR to resume his rehabilitation. On his first day there, a nurse came in to give him a real shower. Dad only had sponge baths in bed since his surgery. Dad gruffly had told her, “I cannot take a shower, don’t you know I had a major surgery?”
She firmly and sweetly replied, “Well Mr Wilfred, if you cannot sit, I will bring the stretcher and we will take you for a shower. If you cannot walk, I will bring you a wheelchair and we will take you for a shower. And if you can walk, we will make you walk to the shower. Whatever happens, you are getting that shower.”
Needless to say, a wheelchair was brought out. The experience ended up being sublime. He liked the shower so much that he kept wiping his head with his hand saying there was more soap, even when there was none. I don’t blame him. Six weeks is a long time to have sponge baths.
I am forever convinced that his first shower was the turning point for my father. It renewed him, refreshed him. I imagine it made him feel human again.
The road to recovery
My family and I are forever grateful to the staff of TIRR Memorial for putting my Dad through a schedule of therapy sessions that can only be described as a medical bootcamp. From morning to early evening, my Dad had sessions with a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, a music therapist. His day was regimented to so many therapy sessions that at some point even I thought, “Don’t these guys know this guy had some major surgery?”
But of course they knew – TIRR is one of the best rehabilitation centres in the US, particularly for patients recovering from neurological traumas. In fact, it is the same place that Congresswoman Gabby Giffords would also get her rehabilitation after being shot in the head after an assassination attempt. It was the staff’s firmness, determination and friendliness that made sure Dad made progress on his road to recovery. He also had visits from Dr Alp and nurses to make sure Dad was being kept on his toes – metaphorically speaking initially.
We remember particularly Nurse Marsha, who managed to steamroll right across any of my Dad’s reluctance with, “Well Mr Wilfred, we are just going to…” To this day, if Dad ever does get stubborn with us in doing vocal exercises – or quite frankly, anything else – we say, “Where’s Nurse Marsha?”
We also remember Meghan, his music therapist. While my father is not the greatest at practising his vocal lessons to make sure the non-paralysed cord stays strong, he loved singing with Meghan. Again to this day, if we want to get my Dad to practice, we start singing his favourite song that she played, Jambalaya on the Bayou.
Everyone at TIRR worked to make sure Dad would be able to speak, eat, sit up, stand up, and eventually walk out of TIRR.
The first day he managed to walk was also the first day he managed to trump his physical therapist in playing pool. It was a rather comical sight. Dad in Bermuda shorts, high pressure socks that went up to his knees to keep his blood pressure up, and an eye patch. After doing his first round around the neurological ward, his physical therapist took him to the games room to play pool. Even with the eye patch, Dad beat him in one game. We asked the therapist if he was giving my Dad a handicap. The therapist said he hadn’t, so they did a second round. Dad won again – this time with the therapist putting a bit more effort. We forgot to tell the physical therapist that Dad had spent a good number of his bachelor days hustling people at pool. We were thrilled he could still trounce unsuspecting souls.
The week after, Dad ate for the first time. He couldn’t sleep the night before, he was so excited and dreamt of eating Fritos corn chips and 7Up, which was the meal du jour the next day. Slowly the amount of food he could eat increased and diversified, until he was able to eat normal meals. The day they took out the stomach tube was temporarily painful, but forever joyful. Imagine going over two months without being able to taste anything. We truly realise now that a meal is not simply about getting nutrients into your body, it is a total sensory experience of being fed. Needless to say, my Dad’s now sporting his pot belly again.
A month after staying in TIRR, Dad was discharged and we stayed in a serviced apartment together. Dad continued his sessions at TIRR as an outpatient. By then, my brother had joined us as well, and it was a strange and wonderful and frustrating process to go back to taking care of each other as a family. We had to invoke Nurse Marsha more than a few times, and not necessarily just for Dad. Fortunately, Mum was the Army General and peacemaker in the family.
Two months and four days after Dad had his neurosurgery, my parents flew back to Saudi Arabia. Dad slowly went back to work, part-time at first. He couldn’t drive due to continued double vision. By December, he was fully back to work and had his vision was corrected. I can attest to what a miracle it was to be in the car with him driving. Saudi highways are no joke.
I am also happy to say that my parents got to use those boots in many line dances.
Dr Alp can attest to the unprecedented speed of Dad’s recovery. There is no way Dad could have recovered without the miracle and advancements of medical science, and the dedication of every doctor, nurse and therapist. We had so much support at every turn – from family, from friends, and also from Saudi Aramco, the company where my parents worked. We were completely and comfortably taken care of.
But I am also convinced that prayers – from all walks of faith from friends and family spanning across the continents – that actually got all of us through it. We felt we were the epicentre of their love and prayers for us – and it was energising. It still energises, and humbles us, to this day.
Dad’s recovery was miraculous, but believe me, it was not easy. It took its toll on him. It took its toll on us. But it was faith – our trust in God – that gave us the strength, the courage, and the determination to get better. We felt God’s presence with us on every step of the way.
You would think that would be the end of the story. I thought so too.
In late fall of 2014, I was in the last leg of my PhD that I was doing in London. I remember feeling under the gun each evening I walked back from the tube to my home. I tried to remember how God had seen my father through in his recovery. Therefore God would see me through my PhD.
It was also coming up to ten years since I had my first unbidden prayer. But I was not getting the same sense of comfort when I remembered how the Holy Spirit had asked me to say that prayer. In fact, the more I thought about the memory of it, the more agitated I got. Enough evenings of this had gone by, until I realised God may be asking me to say the prayer again.
So I did: “Lord, if there is something wrong with my Father, please let us know so we can do something about it.” Immediately, peace came when I walked home. I was not at all surprised when my parents called me two weeks later to let me know that Dad was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
The discovery of Dad’s cancer came about under a similar set of strange circumstances. Dad and Mum were in Peru for a trip around South America with their friends. While in Peru, Dad was knocked down by a van. Luckily he was not hurt, but had a persistent ache in his arm. So when he returned to Toronto – where he was now retired – he went to his doctor to have it checked. His general practitioner (GP) asked him when he last had a physical, and it had been a while. The physical led to discovering a hardness in his thyroid, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What was different this time around was that Dad was having a hard time getting a surgery date after his initial prognosis in November. It did not seem a surgery would be scheduled any time in the next three or four months, so my parents were considering going to the US if it meant the surgery could be done sooner. While thyroid cancer has a low mortality rate, we didn’t want the cancer to spread.
Two months after the prognosis, our family friend, Dr Opi Sharma, took my family to Montreal to visit St Joseph’s Oratory. He promised that whatever we prayed for would be answered. There my family prayed for getting a surgery date soon, and for me to finish my PhD – I had two weeks left by then.
Two days after the visit to St Joseph’s Oratory, the surgeon’s office called to say there was a cancellation and that they had a free slot on the 18th of February. It just happened to be Ash Wednesday. That morning, when I woke up in London, the first thing I did was open up the Daily Gospel that was shown online. I noticed at the top it said the day was also the feast day of St Flavian – the baptismal name of my Dad. I took it as a sign from God, and went through that day in peace, knowing God would take care of my father again.
A father’s love
I am grateful to the past 70 years that God has given to my father. I look forward to all the time that He will give to my father on this earth. And I will forever be grateful to God to give me the gift of my earthly father.
Though the first time I remember my Dad saying that my brother and I were his treasures was when I was twenty years old, I have always known his love for us. Since I was little, he has called me his daughter girl – an affectionate title that I treasure for its redundancy – a double stamp, if you will. He has also teasingly called out to me saying: “hey bansheeria”, which I thought was sweet until someone told me it meant ‘wet rag’ in Konkanee, my mother tongue. I begrudgingly accept this endearment outwardly, though am secretly amused by it.
But there is something to be said about being loved this way – with affection, tenderness and discipline dealt out in blended measure. My father’s love on earth is a glimpse of the abundant and generous love of Our Father in heaven. I can only be grateful to experience both in this lifetime.
“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”Matthew 6: 6-8