A dad’s new day
Dark memories, deep fears and cautious hopes battled for control of Mike Canning’s mind.
Just over a month ago, the 35-year-old High Point man lay on an operating table, about to undergo a delicate, daylong surgery for a life-threatening brain condition. Even as he wondered whether he would awake from the surgery, Mike thought about his childhood.
He remembered what it was like growing up without his father, who left when Mike was only 7.
Remembered how empty his home seemed, not to mention his heart, when his dad walked out.
Remembered how his mother had to work three jobs, just to make ends meet.
That was nearly three decades ago, hundreds of miles from High Point. Another time, another place.
Mike’s thoughts fast-forwarded to his own family. He and Sarah, his wife of eight years, moved here from New Jersey in 2006, seeking a better quality of life. Mike took a job with HP Enterprise Services, and then came the children — a boy, Shaun, who’s now 4, and then twin girls, Kira and Kaya, now 9 months old.
Lying there on the operating table, Mike feared for his children’s future. Was he about to leave them, as his dad had left him? Not the same circumstances, of course, but they’d still be fatherless.
“All I could think about was my kids and what it would be like for them to not have a father,” Mike says.
“I was just ridden with fear and all the what-ifs of what was going to happen. Would I still be able to pay for my house and the car and feed my family? Would I be able to pick my son up and throw a ball with him? Just thinking about my children being without a father and going through what I went through was really hard to stomach.”
Gradually, though, Mike’s worries gave way to the anesthetic coursing through his veins, and he drifted off to sleep.
* * * *
Honestly, Mike hadn’t always been such a deep thinker where his family was concerned. Sure, he loved his kids and did his best to provide for them while Sarah stayed home to care for them. In his mind, though, he figured he would always be there for his family. Tomorrow was a given.
Until May 9, that is.
That night, as Mike and Sarah watched TV, “waves of dizziness” crashed over him, he says. When he stood up to go get some water, his entire right side collapsed and he slumped to the floor. Mike, a former firefighter and first responder, gave himself a stroke test, but he passed. Since he hadn’t eaten well that day, he chalked up the episode to poor nutrition, ate some cereal and a banana, and then went to bed.
He struggled to sleep, alternating between burning up and freezing all night. The next morning, he couldn’t stop sweating, and his right side was still weak and slow to respond.
That’s when Sarah remembered Mike had encountered a black widow the last time he’d cooked on the grill. He must’ve been bitten without realizing it, so off to the emergency room they went, presumably to get an antivenin.
A battery of tests ruled out a spider bite and other possible causes. Although a fluid IV reinvigorated Mike slightly, the doctors at High Point Regional Hospital decided to do a CT scan, just to be cautious.
“After the CT scan, they came back in with a swarm of doctors,” Mike recalls. “One of them had ‘Neurology’ written on his jacket, and at that point I knew something was very wrong.”
Mike had a bleed on his brain, caused by an abnormal connection between the arteries and veins called an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM.
“On the scan, it looks like just a jumble of yarn,” Sarah says.
To a doctor, though, it looks like trouble. The doctors at High Point Regional sent Mike straight to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, where neurosurgeon Dr. Rashid Janjua specializes in treating and removing AVMs from the brain.
According to Janjua, AVMs form as a baby develops in the mother’s womb, and they can form anywhere in the body. Their presence generally goes undetected until a blood vessel wall tears, causing a bleed that can be catastrophic if not treated, even more so if the AVM is on the brain.
“So what (Mike) had was a ticking time bomb,” Janjua says. “The bomb went off, and now you have to go in and take the bomb out.”
When Janjua first met Mike, he saw the fear in his patient’s eyes. Mike wept as he told the doctor about his three young children, and how badly he wanted to live and be there for them.
Janjua, a father of three small children himself, felt tears well up in his own eyes as he held Mike’s hand.
“I understand,” he said softly, “and I’m going to get you back to your kids.”
* * * *
Before removing the AVM, Janjua first had to stop the bleeding. He did this through a procedure called embolization, in which a small catheter is passed through a groin vessel all the way up into the vessels supplying the AVM. With the catheter, he applied a gluelike substance to block the flow of blood through the AVM.
Two days later, Janjua performed a craniotomy — temporarily removing a bone flap from the skull — which gave him access to Mike’s brain to remove the AVM. The delicate surgery, which took the better part of 12 hours, left no margin for error.
“The problem with (Mike) was that the AVM was exactly on that part of the brain where it controlled the other side of the body — his right side was completely controlled,” Janjua explains.
“It’s the worst possible place to have an AVM. So imagine for yourself, I had to go fishing for a pea inside a bowl made out of Jell-O. In order to get to that pea, you have to go through Jell-O, and how much Jell-O you go through determines how he wakes up. So it’s critical to be very delicate and take everything out without harming anything else around there.”
Mike came through the operation fine. Initially after the surgery, he could walk with a walker and had limited functionality in his right foot and arm, all of which were good signs for his recovery.
“But within 24 hours, my arm and my leg just stopped working altogether,” he recalls. “Everything stopped working, and I got really scared that it wasn’t going to come back.”
Mike thought of his children again. Would they grow up with a disabled father? And if so, how effective a father could he be?
Those fears crippled Mike even more, until he moved to the Sticht Center on Aging and Rehabilitation — also at Wake Forest Baptist — and gradually began to regain strength and functionality. Within a couple of weeks, he had been cleared to return to his home.
To his wife and children.
And, perhaps most importantly, to a fresh start as a father.
“In a weird way, I feel like this happening to me is a good thing, because it’s really changed the way I look at the world,” he says.
“I’d never really thought about it, but I was truly taking my life for granted. I had my life totally crammed with what I thought was important, and I’m realizing now that everything doesn’t need to be perfect and everything doesn’t need to be done right away. This has helped me prioritize the things that are really important.”
He’s talking about his family. A month ago, he worried that he would no longer be there for his children, but now he’s realizing that maybe he wasn’t really with them to begin with.
“I was always creating this environment for myself where I couldn’t relax, because I would look around and see things that needed to be done,” Mike explains.
“Even when I was with the kids, I wasn’t mentally with them — I wasn’t enjoying them in the moment — but now I find myself just immersed in their reality, and playing with them and just being with them makes me so happy. I’m able to just slow down and appreciate them more. And the things I used to worry about so much — cutting the grass, cleaning this room or that room — those things just don’t matter anymore.”
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