Brain surgery means life

As he paces around the cafeteria at the Cayman Islands Hospital, Lee McLeggon can’t stop smiling and thanking God.

brain surgery

Neurosurgeon Mr. Adriaan Liebenberg (left) and Chrissie Tomlinson Memorial Hospital surgeon Mr. Christopher Bromley perform life saving surgery on Christine McLeggon. Photo: Submitted

Hospital employees, who have heard the story, come up to him and offer their hand in congratulations.

‘It’s a miracle’ Lee tells them. He has been saying it over and over since Thursday, when he came within a whisker of losing the love of his life, and partner of nearly 20 years, Christine.

Christine, 42, a Jamaican domestic helper for a family in Savannah, went to the Cayman Islands Hospital on the evening of Wednesday, 4 March. A seemingly minor knock on the head from her showerhead the previous Sunday had developed into a major medical emergency.

Over the next few days Christine began to feel progressively worse. She began vomiting and her head hurt. By the time she arrived at the hospital Wednesday night, Christine said it felt like someone was bashing away at her skull from the inside.

Doctors at the government facility did scans and discovered bleeding on the surface of Christine’s brain. She had a condition called chronic subdural hematoma – a type of brain swelling that usually leads to death if not dealt with.

While doctors at the hospital were trying to arrange a medical evacuation to a neurologist early Thursday morning, Christine suddenly fell into a coma. Medical staff knew then they had only hours to relieve the swelling or Christine would die.

Enter neurosurgeons Dr. James Akinwunmi and Dr. Adriaan Liebenberg.

Aware there are no neurosurgeons based here because of family links to the islands, Mr. Akinwunmi, a UK based neurosurgeon, has been trying to establishing a part-time, visiting neuroscience clinic in Cayman for about two years. He had asked his former colleague and student, Mr. Liebenberg, a neurosurgeon in Cape Town, South Africa, to partner with him in the venture.

Mr. Akinwumi had just opened his doors for business. He saw his first patients on-island in early January and was back in Cayman last week for a second round of consultations. Mr. Liebenberg arrived on the island for the first time on the same day that Christine bumped her head.

Perfect timing

If there were a good time in Cayman to urgently require a brain surgeon, Christine had chosen it.

As Christine’s condition plummeted, doctors at the government hospital realised there was no time for an air-ambulance. ‘She would have died during the transfer,’ Mr. Liebenberg later maintained.

The two recently arrived neurosurgeons were Christine’s best hope of survival. An urgent call was placed to Chrissie Tomlinson Memorial Hospital to check whether the doctors were available; whether they had the equipment needed for surgery; and whether the operation could be done at CTMH. They were, they did and it could, was the answer.

‘The doctor was here just on time,’ Christine would later say. She was on the operating table at CTMH within an hour.

Meanwhile, as his wife plummeted into a coma, Lee McLeggon had just seen the couple’s past 20 years together flash before his eyes.

‘I broke down,’ he admits. ‘I thought; I love her so much. We have been together since she was 19. We have our own home. We have a child – I don’t want to lose her.’

Mr. Liebenberg came to get Lee’s permission to perform the operation. Lee knew there were no other options.

‘He hugged me and he said Lee, no problem, she is in good hands. I am going to take care of her,’ Lee recalled.

Once inside the operating theatre there were nerves but things progressed smoothly.

The operation

Mr. Liebenberg drilled two holes into each side of Christine’s skull. When he reached the protective layer of Christine’s brain where the blood was gathering, blood literally spouted out, such was the pressure. On monitors, the operating team saw Christine’s brain contract before their very eyes.

Before he knew it, a nurse was in front of Lee telling him the operation was a success.

‘It really is a miracle,’ he says. ‘Every time I talk about it I am smiling, but there are tears in my eyes.’

Christine was transferred back to the Intensive Care Unit at the Cayman Islands Hospital where she remained this week.

While Lee thinks his wife isn’t sleeping and eating enough, Mr. Liebenberg expects Christine to make a full recovery.

‘If he wasn’t here, I would be on ice right now,’ Christine says from her hospital bed. ‘I don’t know what I can do to thank him.’

Mr. Liebenberg deflects Lee and Christine’s gratitude, describing last Thursday’s events as ‘routine neurosurgery’ – if such a thing exists.

But he has warm words for CTMH surgeon Mr. Christopher Bromley and theatre matron Carmen Bell, both of whom he says were ‘brilliant’ in the tense theatre situation.

Health Services Authority Medical Director Greg Hoeksema says he is thrilled about how quickly the two hospitals were able to coordinate treatment for Christine.

‘This is a pretty dramatic example of the kinds of things that can happen when we work together,’ he says.

More savings

Mr. Hoeksema thinks having the two neurosurgeons visiting the Cayman Islands regularly for consultations and elective procedures, as well as emergencies, will mean fewer people have to travel off-island for medical care.

‘In this case it has saved a life and when it comes to routine neurological consultations, it is going to save a lot of money, a lot of family separation and a lot of anxiety.’

Lee thinks the doctor’s arrival on the island is terrific, too. He has been thanking them, thanking hospital staff, and, most of all, thanking God, all week.

‘It’s a second chance,’ he says. ‘Not everyone gets a second chance.’

Describing himself as a Christian that has backslid over the years, Lee, a water sports operator in Cayman, says his wife’s brush with death has changed him.

‘I used to be a Christian and now I know I have to go back to church,’ he says, choking back tears. ‘I have to go back.’

Christine, too, says the experience has been an affirmation of her faith.

‘When I get out of hospital I am going to serve my God straight through,’ she says. ‘This is a testimony that I have to give that other people can learn from.’

Lee explains that back home in Jamaica, in the couple’s home province of St. Ann, Christine is known as ‘nurse’ because of all the family and friends she looks after.

‘She is her mum and dad’s bread-winner. She is the person that takes care of her sister; her brother; her niece; her nephew; her friend – she takes care of everyone,’ he says, proudly.

‘This is definitely the payback.’

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