December 10, 2009

Aigner finds calm after near-death experience

  • The regional manager with Harsch Investment Properties found his summer vacation rudely interrupted by a subdural hematoma.
    As told to Barbara Travers


    One hot, lazy afternoon in late July, I steered our boat into a wide arc on Lake Kachess, where we have a vacation cabin. I turned to see my daughter, Molly, hanging onto the inner tube with all her might as she crossed the wake.

    Zing. There it was again. A sharp pain at the back of my head. Something wasn’t right. What is that, I thought? Will it please go away? Not familiar with head pain, I chalked this up as a headache. It had been coming and going all day. Sure that it would pass, I fished my exhausted daughter from the lake and headed back to the dock.

    But it didn’t go away. The pain centered at the base of my skull and both sides of my neck were throbbing. I thought my head was going to explode. Was this a migraine? Something wasn’t right. I sat on the deck overlooking the lake while my wife, Tina, brought me an ice pack. The coolness brought little relief. I tried to nap. As I closed my eyes I heard the kids splashing in the water playing with our dog, Charlie. It was a perfect summer day. But it was being ruined by this pain.

    After a short rest, the pain didn’t subside. It was crushing and constant. Tina brought me two ibuprofen and I went inside to lie down. Now conversations centered on calling my father, a retired neurologist, to see if he could figure things out. My self—management strategy quickly changed into emergency room plans. No. I wasn’t ready for that, I can handle this. I can pretty much handle anything. Besides, we were an hour away and that was just too far for this pesky headache.

    Photo courtesy of Rob Aigner
    Rob Aigner returned recently with his family to his vacation cabin on Lake Kachess. He is pictured with his wife, Tina Pappas-Aigner, and son, James.

    Not quite a pesky headache. Soon waves of nausea churned inside. Lying on the cool bathroom floor brought a little relief. More phone calls to my dad, who advised that it was time to get me to the hospital. Tina lugged me into the back seat of the car and kissed us goodbye. Molly drove the 60 minutes to the hospital. I don’t know how she did it; it must have been a frightening ride for her. For me, it was a lifesaving, albeit excruciating trip. Usually, while driving past downtown Bellevue I can look up and admire the sparkling skyline. This time I couldn’t even lift my head.

    Surgery or else

    After buttoning up our cabin and gathering up the kids, Tina met me in the ER.

    We were rapidly moving down a path I did not want to be headed. I had a busy week ahead. I had brokers to see, lunches with tenants and important meetings to attend. I can’t just cancel my week and put my life on hold for a bad headache.

    Not quite a bad headache. I was suffering from a “subdural hematoma” which is a bleed on the surface of the brain. Unlike an aneurysm, which is inside the brain, this is located under the dura, which is the space between the brain and inner part of the skull. So they opened up my skull where the bleed was occurring and mopped up. Then they looked inside and stemmed the flow of blood that caused the bleed in the first place.

    This opening of one’s skull is a procedure called a craniotomy.

    A CRANIOTOMY. This was not what I planned for Tuesday, July 29, 2009. This was not how I planned my week. Hold an open hand up to the side of your head. That’s the amount of skull they opened up.

    My neurosurgeon is a no-nonsense, lay-it-on-the-line kind of guy. He did not pull any punches when he assessed my condition. He simply, and firmly, said, “We are going to surgery. If we do not, you could die.”

    Major surgery and 60-plus stitches later, I entered the world of baby steps. Literally, little steps taken daily helping me get to where I needed to go: recovery.

    For the first time in my life, I had come to grips with the fact that I had no control over my world. I handed it over to numerous people, and my Higher Power, who helped me regain my life. An odd sensation for me, Mr. Type A+. Even on the boat, on the lake, I ignored what I knew was very serious, telling myself “it’s no big deal.” (Note: Never ignore your gut feelings.)

    A blurry recovery

    Standing on the edge of this great gift called life, well, something changes you. Why is it that most of us must be threatened with losing life before we really come to appreciate it? Choosing between brain surgery or death put my life into a very real and chilling perspective. Or maybe it was when my 8-year-old daughter, Melina, told me later, “Daddy, I was so worried about you.”

    My recovery is mostly a blur. Simple tasks became difficult and planned. I do remember my thoughts about the future. Between bouts of deep sleep and stretches of consciousness, my mind drifted to the question: “What would I become?” Would I be the same as before? Would I be “damaged,” able to function only partially? These unknowns forced me to focus on the present more intensely than ever before.

    I became less concerned about the future and my inability to control it. I was only accountable for what was happening to me now. The state of my job and (seemingly) important meetings took a back seat to my present state. I stopped worrying about the future. I was overwhelmed with a deep appreciation for the here-and-now. My sense of gratitude for still being alive, surrounded by family and friends, was the source of my strength.

    No longer was a large tenant renewal as important as it had been previously. Now was a basic realization that if we are giving the tenant our best shot and if they renew, it’s a win-win for all. Making the deal at all costs is not foremost in my mind. “Living in the moment” now makes complete sense to me. I am grounded in the present. It’s a charged emotion.

    When your body and spirit are utterly vulnerable, anything the least bit emotionally charged will make you cry. Man, woman, or child. It happened to me. While I have lost some of that “rawness,” I still am extraordinarily attracted to that center in my brain.

    My experience has been humbling. And that is an emotion that gives me a calming confidence. I know I don’t have all the answers.

    Regardless of the life I have, I take responsibility for how I choose to live it. We all need to be more aware of what is going on in our brains. Pay attention to the power within you and the power you exude. Adjust your tuning to see the opportunities that exist all around us. Appreciate the metamorphoses that come along every day. Simply being open to change is the beginning of change. And remember to give thanks everyday to this gift we have all been given.

    Today I am focused on my health and my family. I take deep, conscious breaths and long walks with my dog in the morning when things are still and quiet. I don’t know if I am a better person, but this slowness is a speed that I have become friends with, because it helps me to discern things more deeply. And I like that.

    Now I am looking for ways to give back by sharing my time, talents and experiences. I have a sense that the right thing will find me. Just having an openness to it, in my mind, will make all the difference. As Albert Einstein said: “I must be willing to give up what I am, in order to become what I will be.”

    Rob Aigner is senior vice president/regional manager with Harsch Investment Properties. His 100 percent recovery would not have been possible without the positive thoughts and prayers of family, friends and colleagues.

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