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Your LIFE: I rang mum in the middle of my brain surgery; BEST FOR REAL LIFE EXCLUSIVE When Natalie Gardiner, 16, needed surgery to cut out her tumour it was bad enough - then she was told she had to be awake during it..

Byline: MONICA CAFFERKY

THE mobile phone pressed to my ear, I waited patiently for Mum to pick up at the other end, then said, "Hi, it's me, Natalie."

"I can't believe you're calling me!" she replied, adding, "Are you all right, darling?" She sounded so worried that I chuckled, and assured her, "I feel fine, Mum."

It could have been any conversation between a mother and daughter - except that I was lying on an operating table with my head wide open and two surgeons cutting away my brain tumour.

We chatted for a few minutes then she said, "I love you." And I replied, "I love you the most" - which is what I always say to my mum.

Then the nurse took the phone away and I settled back into the routine I'd been in for the previous five hours, talking to the surgeons as they sliced away the orangesized growth in my brain.

It seemed impossible that I was in this situation. Only a year before I'd been oblivious to how close I was to death.

I'd suffered what I thought was a severe migraine while at my grandad's house in Ponteland, Newcastle, in 2004. But two years later, in the November, I blacked out in my bedroom at home in Gran Canaria - mum had moved to the island 24 years ago. One minute I felt hot and sick, then I passed out and had a seizure.

At hospital the doctors told me that I had a lump in my head. I wasn't scared because at the time I had no idea it was a tumour. All I knew was that I needed an operation and I just wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

Ten days later I went into surgery and woke up in intensive care. The nurses were all saying how brave I was and that it was a miracle I was alive.

It was only then I realised something was wrong and I asked the doctor what was in my head. He made the shape of a tennis ball with his hand and said, "This is the size of the tumour."

I couldn't take it in but few hours later I was allowed to see my mum and big brother David, 20, and that's when it hit me.

I'd never seen my brother cry but he came into my room and his eyes were red and swollen. I started to cry, too.

The doctors hadn't taken out any of the large growth because it was too dangerous to operate, there was a high risk that they would paralyse me.

Tests showed it was malignant and all they could offer was radiotherapy, but this would cause dementia so me and Mum agreed not to go ahead - even though I might die within months.

But Mum refused to give up. She sent copies of my scans to surgeons in the UK. And in March of this year Dr Gelareh Zadeh from the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, in London, agreed to see me.

This time tests showed the tumour was, in fact, benign which was a massive relief - and the operation was set for June.

In the three months running up to it I tried to lead a normal life. I went to the beach with friends, played football, went swimming and sat my GCSEs, which I didn't have much of a chance to revise for. Occasionally I'd get headaches even though I was on medication.

I was a bit worried about the operation but I liked Dr Zadeh and trusted her completely. She had explained that if I was conscious during the op she could make sure that the parts of my brain that controlled speech and movement of my fingers weren't affected.

The tumour was growing in these areas and she wanted to cut out as much as she could while causing as little damage as possible. To do that she was going to chat to me during the surgery and also ask me to pretend to play the piano. It sounded terrifying, but I knew I had to go ahead with it.

I was scared as I was wheeled into theatre but I put on a brave face for my mum, who was holding my hand. Outside she kissed me and said, "Good luck, see you when you come out." I smiled and squeezed her hand.

The surgeons started a running commentary which they kept up throughout the op, and that really helped calm me down. Then the head clamp went on but it didn't feel uncomfortable.

They put a drip into my wrist, injected a local anaesthetic into my scalp and a surgeon turned on the drill.

The noise was a quiet hum as he began drilling into my brain - I didn't feel anything as there are no nerve-endings in this part of the body.

He opened up the same incision as the Spanish doctors had done and took out a square section of skull. Dr Zadeh showed me the piece of bone - three inches by three inches. I said, "Wow!" As they started to cut out the tumour Dr Zadeh asked me to say the alphabet to make sure the surgery wouldn't leave me with slurred speech.

I also had to list my family members and talk about my mum Pam, 51, my brother David, my grandad Freddy, 80, and my aunt Carolyn, 44 - all of them were in the hospital, rooting for me.

After an hour I finally started to relax. And when I called Mum to tell her the seven-hour op was almost finished I could hear the relief in her voice as she said: "I love you."

They finished two hours later and Dr Zadeh said they'd removed as much of the tumour as they could. I was exhausted but it hadn't been as bad as I'd feared.

Later I learned that the tumour had measured 6.5cm by 5cm by 5cm, and only five per cent of the growth was left in my brain, which was brilliant news. To remove any more would have been too dangerous and might have left me with slurred speech or an inability to walk.

I was just so grateful to the amazing doctors. And four days after the awake craniotomy I was recuperating at my grandad's house. Two weeks later we flew home and I had a picnic on the beach with my friends to celebrate.

In November I had my first check-up and the tumour hasn't grown, which is fantastic. My next check-up is in January and I am determined to remain positive.

I don't think I'm brave - there are people who are worse off than me. But the experience has changed me, I now know exactly what I want to do with my life.

I was inspired by the nurses and doctors I met in the UK and I want to train to be a paediatric nurse, so I can help people like me.

What the doctor says..

DR GELAREH Zadeh, who carried out Natalie's operation, is a neurosurgeon and consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. She says: "An awake craniotomy is not very common. There are only four centres in London, with one or two surgeons at each who can carry out this type of brain surgery.

"Natalie's operation was involved, so it was better for her to be conscious to gain the maximum benefit from surgery. The phone call is something I offer to patients - especially the younger ones. It's calming and reassures loved ones they are fine and everything is going well.

"I have been extremely impressed with Natalie's overall approach to her illness, her surgery, and the treatment as well as her maturity.

"She is only 16 and she has been very brave."

I don't think I'm brave - there are people who are worse off than me

There was a quiet hum as he began to drill into my head

AS TOLD TO MONICA CAFFERKY

CAPTION(S):

CLOSE: Natalie with her mum Pam, who never gave up; RELAXED: Before op
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 15, 2007
Words:1353
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