Acute Illness

Bruce Willis, A Brain Hemorrhage, and Me

After a stroke put me in the hospital, I turned to the films of Bruce Willis to teach me how to Live Free and Die Hard.

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Bruce Willis and I are nothing alike. For starters, he’s bald. He’s also much older, swarthier, and probably smells like strong coffee and freshly fired AK-47’s.

One would think Bruce’s job is to smoke a lot of cigarettes in his movies. But it’s actually to kill people. Usually while he’s bleeding or pointing a gun at someone, sometimes both. Guns don’t kill people. Bruce Willis and cigarettes kill people. Also, Bruce Willis with a cigarette in his mouth. That’ll kill you twice.

There’s something to be said for Sir Bruce’s concrete level of badassery. He’s 63 years old and probably has cigars older than me. I’d like to think that in his spare time he bounces off buildings and crashes stolen vehicles into storefronts. But no matter what he’s doing with his multi-million-dollar tough guy franchise, this much we know for sure: Bruce Willis is the king of cool.

Enter me, the opposite of cool.

I am so uncool that one time I had a brain hemorrhage.

In the fall of 2014, just five days into my brand new career as a high school history teacher, things started getting strange. Symptoms like throbbing ears, double-vision, and nausea quickly landed me in an emergency room in Denver, Colorado after a rather boring blind date with a gentleman I have since named “Day of Brain Hemorrhage Guy.”

In the fall of 2014, just five days into my brand new career as a high school history teacher, things started getting strange.

I laid on a little paper-covered table as a nurse revealed that an area of my brain was currently bleeding. The words “brain” and “bleeding” rang in my ears as I gripped my mother’s hands and went into shock. I shivered in a 95-degree room and had what I can only diagnose now as a panic attack. It was easily the least cool I’ve ever been.

No more quirky lesson plans for this gal! I had a new career now: trying to make sure my head didn’t hemorrhage any more than it already had.

After being sent home from the hospital with a bleeding brain to “wait and see” if the hemorrhage would inexplicably heal itself, I was instructed to remain on bedrest for six weeks. This meant no teaching, no driving, no blind dating. The hemorrhage was too deep in my brain to operate on, the doctors said. In some cases, blood reabsorbed back into the brain over time, making operation unnecessary. Best case scenario, I could watch The Fifth Element twenty-seven times and then go back to work with a fun story for my students in a few months when I was all better.

Mimi Hayes today.

However, during those six weeks, my brain began to wreak havoc on my body, wiping out the motor functions, vision, and speech ability on my left side. The blood wasn’t reabsorbing, it was expanding. I was having a slow-motion stroke. I lost twenty pounds of muscle mass. I even lost the taste buds on the left side of my tongue. After my taste buds went, my neurologist scheduled an emergency craniotomy.

It was around this time that I started to really get Bruce Willis on the brain. True, my life didn’t exactly look like a Bruce Willis movie. Sitting on the couch being sick isn’t much like an action-packed blockbuster. But in Bruce, what I did see was a role model of who I wanted to be in this strangely powerless situation. Sure, I couldn’t match his intensity or bodycount, but his grit and take-no-shits mentality could help me get through the toughest months of my life.

I’d need intensive physical and occupational therapy to rewire my neurons after brain surgery. I’d need to be in a rehabilitation hospital surrounded by elderly people for two weeks. I started asking myself: WWBWD? What Would Bruce Willis Do in this situation?

I started asking myself: WWBWD? What Would Bruce Willis Do in this situation?

So when I got out of my wheelchair and started wobbling down the halls of the hospital using a walker against my therapist’s orders, sure, I may have been being reckless. But I’d also crossed the Willis threshold. I was breaking rules now. And boy, did it feel good.

I put a miniature Bruce on my shoulder ̶ adorably sized but still just as deadly ̶ to mentor me through the challenges of relearning how to walk, talk, and see post-injury. A job that nobody, not even Bruce himself, had prepared me for at the age of twenty-two.

With every terrifying hospital experience and frustrating therapy session he was right there with a “good job, Kiddo” or an encouraging puff of his cigar. There were versions of him too, tailored to each situation I found myself in. When I needed a hardy dose of reality it was John McClane from Die Hard; when I needed a cool-headed hero’s response it was Harry S. Stamper from Armageddon. But no matter the Bruce sitting on my shoulder, the message was the same: you are going to get through this, Kiddo.

In just two weeks in an intensive rehabilitation center, I rewired my neurons. I’d done the impossible: after my brain bleed had practically turned me into Mr. Glass, I’d become Unbreakable.

I’d done the impossible: after my brain bleed had practically turned me into Mr. Glass, I’d become Unbreakable.

I walked myself out the front doors of rehab just two weeks after my surgery, a miracle considering the shape I’d been in upon entry. My vision was correcting itself; I was able to taste foods again. I could crush a logic puzzle and make a mean batch of chocolate chip cookies in the practice therapy kitchen. Silently, Bruce Willis nodded in pride and rose a congratulatory cigar to my healing body, then helped himself to a cookie or two.

I returned to the classroom to teach in January, a mere three months after my head exploded. I put together engaging lesson plans and rocked cute teacher outfits once again. I graded papers and attended those dreaded parent-teacher conferences. I made new seating charts to separate the talkers and made copies without breaking the copy machine. Sometimes I forgot I even had a brain hemorrhage in the first place.

That’s pretty cool.

Hey, maybe Bruce and I are not so different after all.

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