Surviving brain surgery offered him new insights into life

By Ryan Heller

Jason Roberts’ closest friend noticed something abnormal about him.

“Who’s the project lead?” Jason asked.

“Andrew,” Smith said.

Jason gazed at Smith confused.

“Don’t give me the nickname,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know anybody named Andrew. What’s his real name?”

“Andrew, he’s worked for you for seven years,” Smith said. You know Andrew. Drew? AJ? You need to hand up the phone and go talk to your wife.”

Jason’s wife, Lori, quizzed him on the names of family members. They both found it unusual, but they were not sure if medical examination was needed. Jason thought it could be caused by stress. Lori thought he could’ve had a concussion, but neither of them took it seriously. It was Smith, however, that persuaded them to see the doctor.

“I was telling Lori he’s stubborn,” Smith said. “If you’re not going to take him to the doctor, then I’ll drive him there myself.”

“But to lose your brain and to lose speech…”

Jason went for a scan thinking it was just for precaution. However, while he walked out to the parking lot, he got a phone call. He learnt that inside of his brain there was a golf-ball-sized cavernous malformation pressing against the left side of his head.

The fear came true.

Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by frustration. His intelligence brought him to the top of his profession; he was promoted to general manager of BRAVAS, a technology company. He couldn’t accept it would hurt his career.

“I was a straight A student,” he said. “My whole life, I’ve strived really hard to be the best at whatever I’m doing. And to have something happen in your brain…I felt like I could lose a hand and still get by. But to lose your brain and to lose speech. That would be worse than anything to me.”

Looking for hope

He went to the hospital with Lori in Delray Beach Florida. He received extensive testing from several doctors, but each of them had different view regarding the same disease. Some were confident they could treat him, while others expressed there was a 50-percent chance he’d never talk again. Some said to operate. Others said to wait.

Jason was tired of getting mixed answers. He decided to go the University of Miami Hospital and Clinics to meet with Dr. Ricardo Komotar on Nov. 11, 2019. When Jason walked into his office, the vibe was different. Dr. Komotar was very warm to him and enthusiastic. He presented his abilities and almost guaranteed Jason would survive the operation with his memory and hearing retained.

However, the surgery had to be done in three days.

Jason agreed.

“I was shocked when Jason said OK,” Lori said. “If it would’ve been me, I would’ve said ‘We’re going to talk and think about this.’”

His family came to support him, including his mother, Eve, who flew from Oregon in short notice. Though Jason was very anxious, he hide his feelings from his family. He didn’t want them to worry – especially his wife – not after all they had went through.

Lori had a hereditary diabetes. She had it for decades, which weakened her heart. Her sister passed away at 38 from the same issue. Lori was now 58. Jason was her protector, going out of his way to make sure she stayed healthy.

The surgery was possibly going to flip the situation.

“When you hand the keys over to a surgeon to cut you open like I did, I didn’t know if I was coming out or not,” Jason said. “I did some estate planning before I went in. I made sure she knew all of the passwords to the bank account and where the insurance policy and keys were. I gave her a packet and I was like ‘This may be the last thing I can give you.’”

Jason laid in the hospital bed laughing and cracking jokes. He rolled his eyes to the back of his head, pretending to die. He hanged out of his gown, walked around the room with his bare bottom and took photos with his brother-in-law. It didn’t get serious until he was brought into the operation room at 5:00 a.m. the next day.

The surgeons drilled a half-dollar-sized hole, removed the malformation and screwed a metal plate on top of the incision.

After surgery

“When I woke up, I cried,” Jason said. “It hurt and I was freaked out. I was actually more surprised to be alive afterwards than I was scared before I went in.”

The first person he saw was Lori. He couldn’t talk since his jaw muscles were stiff. All he did was smile at her as streams of blood trickled down his face. They could be relieved.

“I was so relieved that he was awake,” Lori said. “To see him in that bed with all the blood and all the swelling and not being able to communicate like he is able to do. It was very hard.”

He then turned to his mother, who was also beside him. They locked eyes for minutes without a single word exchanged.

“That connection was a heart connection,” Eve said. “It didn’t matter whether we intellectually understood any of this yet. But I could see his soul and he could see mine.”

To the surprise of many, he was able to staggered out of the hospital the next day, get into the elevator and ride an Uber home.

Lori was turned into the caregiver role her husband previously excelled in. She brought and fed him Tillamook vanilla ice cream to numb the pain of his jaw. The creaminess of the frozen dessert caused it to melt onto his tongue and slide into his stomach. It was one of the few things she could do to help. She luckily had the assistance of Smith, who was already at the house taking care of his dog. He would visit every morning and do the physical work that Lori wasn’t strong enough to handle.

As he recovered, Jason found it impossible to multitask the way he used to, so Lori never played music. She only turned on the television when she was away from his home office, and she went outside to talk on the phone. She made small sacrifice for the love of her life.

Going back to normal

Just a month later, Jason was noticeably improving, having ability to carry out any conversation. He celebrated his 50th birthday. While the COVID-19 kept him within a 5-mile radius of his house for his wife’s safety, he wouldn’t be able to interact with others often, but his memory still crept back into him. The vocabulary he used to display with ease and formal name were also back in his mind.

However, he no longer considered brain and speech that important. He realized he had more beyond that. Being alive itself was already a blessing.

“He’s so much more than a walking encyclopedia,” Lori said. “He’s a loving, caring individual.”

Edited by Wendy Jin