Hemiplegia is a term that means ‘half-paralyzed’ (the roots are from the Greek terms for ‘half’ and ‘stroke’), and refers to a condition in which one or the other side of a person’s body is paralyzed. A related condition, hemiparesis, refers to weakness on one side.
The most common cause of hemiplegia is stroke, and occurs when the lesion (area of brain damage) lies on or near a brain area known as the motor strip. My hemiplegia is caused by a relatively rare condition called glioma, which is a kind of brain tumor (specifically, in my case, an anaplastic astrocytoma, or stage 3 glioma). The tumor, which is about the size of a walnut, puts pressure on the motor strip in the right parietal lobe of my brain, disrupting the delicate neural networks in the peanut-sized area that controls all the voluntary (muscle) and semi-voluntary (e.g. breathing) processes on the left side of my body.
I first noticed symptoms in the summer of 2006, when I began to lose control of the small finger of my left hand, most noticeably while typing. By early fall, I was limping, and by early December, after the fast-growing tumor was discovered and I had undergone radiation therapy, I was nearly completely paralyzed on my left side. I could just barely stand or walk, and I relied almost completely on my right side for such movement as I could make.
Hemiplegia does not, in itself, necessarily involve the complete loss of sensation that is experienced by those who, for example, suffer severed spinal cords. The nerves that transmit sensation from the left side to the brain continue to function – the brain’s sensory areas are removed from the motor strip – it is only the nerves that transmit muscle commands from the brain to the body that are nonfunctional. The hemiplegic may be able to feel, but not move the affected side, as is the case with me.
If you’ve ever wondered what it must be like as you gazed at some poor soul in a wheelchair or walking with great difficulty, I can say, with at least a little authority, is that what wears most is the constant, ceaseless friction of limbs that refuse to cooperate. Tasks I once did quickly and with little thought – dressing, showering, getting in the car – are now constant obstacles that require forethought and planning to accomplish – it can take 40 minutes (or longer) to shower and dress, especially when the occasion requires garb like shirts that have buttons, or – God forbid – a tie.
A hemiplegic has great difficulty carrying things, like groceries, that can upset an already precarious balance – basically we’re always standing on one leg – try lifting one leg off the floor and then picking up something – the body physics involved will become clear in a way that words may not adequately express. It is common for hemiplegics to become profoundly fatigued late in the day – muscles that are devoid of neural input rapidly weaken and tire very easily.
Afternoons, I sometimes wake slumped in my chair, or, more than once, keeled over on my computer’s keyboard with a text-entry window beeping madly at me after receiving several thousand more characters than its buffers will allow, all typed by my forehead. Sometimes, in the evening, I can barely lift my left leg high enough to enter the car. I try to plan my days to schedule active events in the morning, when the muscles function as well as they are likely to. We often build a nap into days that have dawn-to-dusk schedules, to avoid embarrassment in the company of others.