Things just didn’t smell right to Allison Woyiwada and this wasn’t just a passing odour, it was the disgusting, intense stink of garbage. The smell filled her nose when no one else could detect it, so she knew instantly something was wrong.
"I didn't want anything in my head that no one else had there," said Woyiwada.
Woyiwada, 62, is a well-respected member of Ottawa's music and theatre community. She gave the gift of music to thousands of elementary students during her 28 years teaching at Hopewell Public School.
But two years ago, the music almost stopped for Woyiwada after a medical diagnosis and a complicated surgery.
Woyiwada had an aneurysm the size of a small plum that was causing olfactory hallucinations and doctors feared if it wasn't fixed, it might cause a massive stroke. She required a 12-hour operation to be performed by a team of about 15 doctors – including neuro and cardiac specialists.
They lowered her body temperature to 13 degrees Celsius and stopped her heart for 40 minutes to prevent blood from pumping through the part of the brain they needed to fix.
Close to dying
"Risks would be stroke, brain swelling, seizures, infection… and death. This would be quite unusual surgery," said the Ottawa Hospital's head of neurosurgery Dr. Howard Lesiuk.
Though rare and complicated, Woyiwada made it through the surgery.
"Allison came just about as close to dying as it's possible to do so, without actually dying," said Leskiuk.
But 10 days after surgery, when she emerged from an induced coma, it appeared she wasn't there at all.
"She had no motor skills, no speech, and appeared to have no memory. It was all quite shocking. We became accustomed to the new reality," recalled Bob McMechan, Woyiwada's husband.
A couple of months after surgery Woyiwada's behaviour was much like that of a toddler, fixated on single words and repeating them. She'd sometimes remove the helmet she wore to protect her healing brain and skull and her family recalls her picking up food such as potatoes and gravy with her hands.
Melodic intonation therapy key to recovery
When Woyiwada's daughter decided to wheel her mom up to a piano in a hospital waiting area, it was the turning point in Alison Woyiwada's recovery.
Woyiwada put her hands on the keys and started to play the sheet music sitting on the piano – a Beethoven sonata.
"The first time she played I was in shock," said Marya Woyiwada. "Everyone just sort of saw this lady in her gown, with her helmet on…The second she started playing everyone's head turned."
Neurologic music therapist Cheryl Jones agreed to use a method called melodic intonation therapy to help bring back Woyiwada's speech.
"At that point Allison's sentences were gibberish," said Jones. "The first goal was to give Allison some basic phrases to communicate with."
Jones found if words were attached to a melody, Woyiwada could find her words easier.
Jones believed the rebuilding of Woyiwada's speech excelled because of the former music teacher's own well-honed music skills. But Jones notes just how and why this kind of therapy works is still a matter of some debate in scientific circles.
"When the brain has been injured, it has been injured… because everyone has a unique injury or impairment, it's not a miracle, but a huge help."
Return to teaching
Woyiwada is once again teaching piano, she conducts an Ottawa music group and sings in German, French and English in the Brahms choir. She’s not 100 per cent back and no one can say if she’ll get back to the person she was before her brain injury, but she says she's going to try.
Two years on, Woyiwada's complicated surgery and incredible recovery is the subject of lectures at the University of Ottawa. She still has no memory of her first couple months post-surgery but with the help of her family, emails, journals, hospital reports and photos, Woyiwada has pieced together the journey.
Their story is now compiled in a book called, Allison’s Brain which is being released on Sept. 24, 2014.