A Piano, a Tough Diagnosis, and a Wedding
Imagine you are 29. You're an energetic elementary school music teacher who loves few things more than seeing your students sing their hearts out. You are a gifted musician yourself. You can close your eyes when you play piano because it is just second nature.
Now imagine that in less than a week you go from effortlessly tickling the ivories to having no recollection of how to play at all.
Imagine you have to relearn how to play sharps, flats, scales, and arpeggios. Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin used to flow so easily. Now the masters are a distant memory.
You have to relearn because three days after getting engaged to the love of your life while vacationing in Belize, your head aches so severely you end up at a Group Health Urgent Care facility as soon as you return.
And you learn you have a brain tumor. You learn you not only have a brain tumor, but that you have one that must be removed as soon as possible.
Like most of us, Rachel Teigen-Brackett would've struggled to imagine any of this, let alone go through it. But she did. This is her story.
On April 11, 2009, Rachel's life was thrown out of balance. Literally.
When you undergo brain surgery, you often have to retrain your brain to do simple tasks since depth perception, timing, and motorskills are skewed. For Rachel, everyday tasks like opening doors, drinking, and walking down stairs became humbling experiences. "I would go to take a sip from a cup and totally miss my mouth. It was really embarrassing," she explains in between bursts of laughter. "I vividly remember the first time I walked down stairs after the surgery. It was terrifying. As a runner and triathlete, I never thought walking down three stairs would be such a huge victory but it was."
Scared, frustrated, mad, despondent. Rachel experienced all these emotions as she sat in the hospital waiting for surgery. But she also said she felt supported, comforted, grateful, and informed.
Even though the news about her condition was hard to hear, Rachel explains that she always felt like she knew exactly what was happening, what her options were, and what the trade-offs would be. "I would sit down and look over everything with my family and Dr. (Kyle) Kim," Rachel says. "He would talk through what he was seeing, what he thought, and what the risks were. In my case, the risks were impaired right-side mobility and vision. We had to really think through what that would mean. We knew it was worth it, but it was scary. But thanks to Dr. Kim, we felt prepared for all possible outcomes."
As a leading neurosurgeon at Group Health, Dr. Kim knows all about brain tumors. He describes Rachel's case as unique. "In neurosurgery, we see unusual things. Coming to see us is always a sentinel moment, a dramatic event in someone's life," he explains. "Rachel's case was more dramatic than most, however. Her tumor was rare, so that made it complicated. But beyond that, Rachel herself is so unique. She is so young to have had a tumor, and she is such a radiant person. She is a life-giving force to those around her."
Getting Patient-Centered Care
It is natural to worry and wonder about what would happen if faced with a life-threatening situation, also known as The Big One. What most of us know is we would want the best care possible. We would want a doctor that is thinking exclusively about what is best for us, rather than best for the business. The Group Health model allows doctors to do exactly that focus on the patient rather than the payment.
Group Health's patient-centered approach has garnered national attention and is considered a model for other integrated health care systems. In Dr. Kim's words, "Group Health is becoming sexy."
Rachel and her family took comfort in knowing that some of the nation's top brain surgeons were on their side when The Big One hit. When asked the one word she would use to describe Dr. Kim, Rachel's response was, "Wonderful!" And when asked to describe Rachel, Dr. Kim said, "Wonderful. Simply wonderful."
Rachel is a fighter. A cheerful fighter, but a fighter nonetheless. She got married, bought a house, and completed a triathlon within months of beating the tumor.
She's still working on the piano though. "I like to blame it on the brain surgery, but the truth is I need to practice more," laughs Rachel. She doesn't seem to mind. "You feel like life is more precious. When I have a bad day, I think to myself, this isn't so bad. I'm here. I'm happy. I'm living."
Her husband, family, friends, and the enthusiastic young musicians she inspires everyday are undoubtedly thankful Rachel is here, too. Happy and living.
Exercising Your Brain
Rachel's struggle to learn to play the piano again is frustrating, yet not unusual. "Walking and breathing are common denominator activities, but something like playing piano is a finely tuned skill," explains Dr. Kim.
It takes many different elements working together so it's easy to knock it out of balance because if one of those elements gets thrown off, the whole process breaks down. That's why you have to practice, practice, practice to keep everything working together and in the order required.
Practice is good for all our brains, whether we play piano or not! To keep your brain in tiptop shape, go to your local library or bookstore and get some books to challenge your brain, or check out these online resources: