There were the pillow and blanket Michael Anderson kept on the wrestling mat his senior season. After weigh-ins, he would drop to the floor and sleep until the meet began.
There was the gnawing feeling he had while racing four-wheelers on the weekends. He couldn’t describe it exactly. But, he would walk into the garage telling his dad, “Something just doesn’t feel right.”
And then, there was the headache. The skull-splitting, painful pounding.
The headache appeared for his two losses at the conference tourney that Saturday in January 2018. It was there as Anderson — the wrestler who as a junior had the most pins of anyone on his Greencastle High team — was pinned to the mat in seconds. It was there as Anderson, who used to get outraged at losing, walked off defeated without an ounce of emotion.
Everyone knew something was wrong.
Something. But, not this.
Five days after the conference tourney, in the wee hours of that Thursday morning, Anderson became paralyzed on the left side of his body. He was 18 years old, lying in the operating room at IU Health Methodist Hospital, neurosurgeon Aaron Cohen carefully removing a golf ball-sized tumor that was hemorrhaging in his brain.
“It was like a bad dream,” said his dad, Mike Anderson. “He was the strongest kid I knew. I guess you just never know.”
No one can know for sure. But it’s likely, doctors told Anderson, the tumor had been hiding in his brain since birth.
Called a cavernous angioma, the tumor was a cluster of vessels with small bubbles filled with blood. These tumors have weak walls, meaning blood can leak out.
While some people go their entire lives without knowing they have a cavernous angioma, others will show symptoms, such as headaches and seizures. If those tumors start bleeding, they can be fatal without treatment.
“Something happened and his started bleeding a lot,” said Kellie Lowry, Anderson’s mom. “This sack of blood vessels got bigger and started leaking blood into his brain.”
Had Anderson not gone to the emergency room when he did, Lowry said, “he would have died.”
At first, Anderson had tried to fight through the pain. He went home that Saturday after the wrestling conference assuming he had the flu. By Tuesday, the headache was still pounding. He went to the doctor, was diagnosed with a migraine, given a shot and medicine and sent home.
Strange, Lowry remembers thinking, her son had never suffered migraines before.
“There were times it popped into your head, ‘Maybe he has a brain tumor,'” she said. “Then you say, ‘Are you kidding me? He doesn’t have a brain tumor.'”
By Wednesday, Anderson wasn’t getting better. He was getting worse. He called his mom at work: “I’m ready to go to the emergency room.”
Anderson walked into the ER of his local hospital, alert. He talked to the doctor and was taken back for a scan of his brain.
Lowry stood staring in disbelief as the doctor told her the results: “It’s an aggressive brain tumor. Methodist is waiting on you. You need to get him up there.”
By 5 a.m. the next morning, Anderson was in surgery. Dr. Cohen successfully removed all of the tumor. Not long after, Anderson was squeezing his dad’s hand, asking for a fountain coke. Six days later, he was leaving Methodist in a wheelchair.
Next, would come something tougher than any opponent he’d ever faced, a bout with the left side of his body — which had to learn everything all over again.
Appreciating life more
He walked in using a quad cane, one of those canes with four prongs and rubber covers on the ends. Anderson was there to meet his physical therapist David Edwards at the IU Health Neuroscience Center.
That was a year ago. Anderson had already had weeks of inpatient rehab, learning to walk. But he still couldn’t do much with his left side. His leg dragged a bit; he could barely lift his arm.
“Everything was really difficult in terms of overall mobility with the left side,” Edwards said. In rehab, the biggest gains come in the beginning. “He’s really proven you can make gains even a year after, which is pretty awesome.”
Just a few weeks ago, Anderson wiggled his fingers for the first time, said Mike Anderson. “It’s still coming.”
Anderson’s strength from wrestling, his commitment to working out and his awareness of his own body has been a key factor to his success, said Edwards.
He’s getting his life back outside of rehab, too. One of the first questions Rachel Lower, occupational therapist at IU Health Neuroscience Center, had for Anderson earlier this month: “Did you place?”
“Second,” Anderson said with a shy smile.
“Woohooo,” she said.
Anderson was back from a weekend in Texas with his dad and stepdad at the Lonestar Legend Red River AXCC Race. He placed second in his class and 13th overall. Anderson drove with his left arm strapped down, and a steering rod installed for his right hand.
“He’s not letting it slow him down,” said his dad. “He’s doing everything he did before. He just does it a little differently than he did before. He’s a tough kid.”
Anderson’s dream, though, was to be in the U.S. Navy, like his grandpa Max Whitaker. Anderson scored high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery placement test to be a nuclear engineer.
The tumor has put that dream on hold.
Still, Anderson graduated on time with his class last spring and he was prom king. During the wrestling season, he went back to cheer on his Greencastle wrestling team and attended the IHSAA state finals. He is set to start classes at Indiana State University this fall, majoring in civil engineering.
Life looks different from what he thought it would at 19. But Anderson also looks at life differently.
“There are times,” he said, “where I appreciate things a little more.”