For the past 25 years, Nina Orrett Ebanks has been living with pain.
It started as an occasional headache. It escalated to monthly and then daily headaches, made worse because the pain expanded to her ear and then her teeth, always on the right side of her head.
Throughout those years she worked, married and raised a family, all the while reinforcing her reputation as Cayman’s premiere vocalist. She sang at weddings, funerals and birthdays. She organised concerts and released an album that quickly sold out.
There must be few people in Cayman who don’t know Nina. Even if they have never heard her sing in person, they are likely to have heard her distinctive recording of Cayman’s National Song, often played at public meetings as well as on various radio stations.
But for every concert she held, there were others that had to be cancelled because of the pain. Her album, ‘Nina At Last’ was a success, but two others never got released. She had to stop the voice classes that gave her students so much pleasure and confidence.
By the summer of 2005, her face was puffy. Her eyes were black and blue because she rubbed them so much, trying to ease the pain. Not only was she unable to sleep nights, she was now losing the sight in her right eye.
On 1 February 2006, according to Nina, ‘I couldn’t take the pain any longer. I went into a kind of fit right here in my house. I told my daughter to call 911 because I thought I would pass out.’
When the ambulance arrived, all she saw was white fog and people’s feet. She tried asking for hep, but felt she wasn’t getting through. Later she learned that no one had been able to understand what she was saying.
‘At the hospital, I just started screaming because I couldn’t bear it any more. It was embarrassing because I knew where I was,’ Nina related. She was given several shots for pain and the doctor on duty ordered a CAT scan – a series of X-rays that gives a three-dimensional picture of an internal organ.
The doctor told her the bad news. She had a tumour. The good news was that it was not malignant. It was up to her whether she wanted it removed. ‘I told him, ‘If you have to remove half my face to get rid of the pain, do it,’ Nina reported.
Two days later she was in Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. After days of tests and preliminary procedures, surgery took place on Wednesday, 8 February. Dr. Jacques Morcos removed the tumour that had been pressing against the artery on the right side of her brain. It was the size of a golf ball.
She asked how long she had had it. ‘Many, many years,’ was the answer.
After five days of recuperation in hospital, Nina moved to a hotel nearby. Her mother, Mrs. Daphne Orrett, and West Bay MLA Cline Glidden had gone with her to the hospital. Her mother stayed with her until the end of February.
Then Nina’s husband, Rollin Ebanks Jr., went to stay with her until she could cope with the changes in air pressure involved in flying back to Cayman.
Nina came home on 6 March, her head shaved, her face a little puffy, but her eyes smiling. There was pain – ‘But I sense a difference now. It’s the pain of healing, not the headaches I had before,’ she explained.
Always a prayerful person, she had asked everyone she met to pray for her when she was getting ready to go to Miami. Those pre-surgery days were pain-free and Nina believes that was because of people’s prayers for her.
‘I could ask God why all these years I’ve had to put up with all the pain,’ she said. But that is not her way. ‘My question is – God, what do you now need me to do?’
Although Nina is not angry with God, she admits feeling some anger toward doctors who misdiagnosed her condition. She had been told she suffered from migraines. A specialist told her she had a lazy left eye, which over-strained the right eye. She was treated for high blood pressure, which was a symptom but not the root cause.
In August 2005, Dr. Ruthlyn Pomares had suggested that Nina get a CAT scan. But Nina’s father was sick and she got caught up with his hospitalisation. He died 22 September and she had to make funeral arrangements. She had other people to take care of and she didn’t make herself a priority until events overtook her.
After the surgery last month in Miami, Nina learned that insurance would cover 70 per cent of her bills. ‘I nearly had a heart attack,’ she confessed. ‘I may be better, but the bill is still there. And I don’t need that in my head.’
But for years Nina has been giving to her community and in her time of difficulty people seem to want to give back to her. An account has been started at Butterfield Bank in her name: US Savings 01-201-119761.
Five people are signatories to the account: her sister Sarah Orrett; friends Vicki Hew, Bonnie Murugesu, Treaty Glidden and Andrew Hulse. There can be no withdrawals without two of those five signing.
Nina has been told that the Cayman Music and Entertainment Association will be having a fundraiser for her benefit. Other individuals or groups have plans that range from a car wash to fish tea sale.
She is grateful. Someday she will have a long list of people to thank. At the top will be the doctors who helped her.
And her husband. ‘A lesser man would have walked away,’ she said, recalling the nights she kept him awake because the pain wouldn’t let her sleep. ‘Rollin would talk softly and rub my neck four or five times a night,’ she said. ‘Then he’d get up at 6am to go to work and when he came home he’d always bring me a flower.’
Nina was scheduled to return to Jackson Memorial on 13 March for follow-up consultation with Dr. Morcos. She hoped to be back in Cayman two days later.
‘Let people know there’s going to be a big comeback concert as soon as I’m capable of singing and rehearsing without pain,’ she said. ‘I definitely want to thank the entire Cayman Islands for their prayers and support.’