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Melissa prior to her brain tumor diagnosis

Melissa Carleton’s birth story is not like most other birth stories.

(No, that’s an understatement. Let’s try again.)

Melissa Carleton’s birth story is unlike any other birth story we’ve ever heard. Because Melissa was in a coma on the day her son, West, was born via C-section.

A coma she’d been in for 10 weeks.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because a similar plot line has been featured on pretty much every TV medical drama in recent history. But this isn’t fiction. This is a family’s reality.

Headaches plagued Melissa’s pregnancy from about the three-month mark, but she and her loved ones largely disregarded them -- because everyone gets headaches, right? When she was 24 weeks pregnant, an MRI revealed the reason behind the symptoms: a fist-sized benign tumor, located in her right frontal lobe.

And because the last thing you expect when dealing with a headache is for doctors to find a tumor in your brain, Melissa’s father, John Farrell, remembers joking around after the diagnosis.

“It was surreal,” John says. “I walked up to her and gave her a hug and told her that I loved her. And we laughed, saying, ‘You’ve got a brain tumor! How many people are walking around the world with brain tumors? Maybe I’ve got one, too!’ Because at the time there was no indication she was sick.”

That was the last time John ever spoke with his daughter -- about three years ago now. Before the tumor could be removed, Melissa suffered a debilitating seizure that put her in a coma for several weeks. 

“The shock was immense,” John says. “The pain was profound. We had to pull ourselves up off the ground every day. It hit us so quickly we hardly had time to breathe.”

After West was born, Melissa miraculously emerged from the coma. Her parents, John and Lawanna, after a months-long stay in another hospital, brought their daughter home to their Fresno, CA residence in December 2014. She has lived with them ever since with around-the-clock aid that includes more than a dozen caregivers and nursing students. Her particular brain injury affects her thalamus, which is the part of the brain that relays motor control and sensory signals. It also controls a person’s sleep and wake cycles and consciousness.

(For those of you who skipped that last part because it was science-y, and science is hard, here’s an example: Melissa might want to move her arm, but the message gets garbled in translation as it travels through her injured thalamus, so her arm cannot move. “Just to open her eyes might be the equivalent of you and me running a 10k,” John says.)

Melissa and her dad, John.

Melissa and her family

Melissa suffers essentially from quadriplegia and is unable to communicate. But one thing is for certain: she is trying damn hard to recover, even if she can’t yet express it. Her parents and her caregivers witness her tenacity on a daily basis. Before the tumor diagnosis, Melissa worked as a family therapist, and her father believes her professional experience could be helping his daughter as she heals.

“Here’s this woman who devoted her whole life to helping other people adjust to their difficulties and work through them,” John says. “Now, somehow, she has to draw on those resources in ways that are impossible for us to understand, because she can’t articulate it."

West will be 3 years old in May. He kisses his mother’s hands and and adorably refers to ambulances as “mama’s car.” He knows his mom is sick but is surrounded by a village of amazing humans who love on him. “West’s experience of his mother is part of a much larger constellation of family,” John says.

And Melissa very much knows her son.

“Just last night, West was playing with one of the caregivers, and he was laughing, and I looked up at Melissa, and darn it if she didn’t have a smile on her face!” John says.

Your support this month will help John and Lawanna with the financials associated with Melissa’s continued care. They receive help from insurance and from government aid but cover many expenses out of pocket. Brain injuries are mysterious; there’s no way to know how long it may take for Melissa to recover or what the future will bring.

“One of the things we’ve learned in all of this is that you don’t get to plan your life,” John says. “It’s a fiction that we control our lives. We have to manage them, that’s true -- but sometimes things happen, and they’re not things you would choose. They’re not things you’d choose for your worst enemy. But they happen, and then you just have to stand up under them.”

March 10 will mark the three-year anniversary of the seizure that put Melissa into a coma. She and her loved ones continue to approach life one day at a time.

“These things don’t crush you,” John says. “You kind of wish they would. You wish they’d knock you on the ground and kill you so you didn’t have to live with it. But that’s not what happens. It’s like a balloon that keeps being expanded -- a little bit, a little bit, a little bit -- but it never pops. This situation has expanded us. It’s helped us appreciate a lot about life.”

John says his daughter inspires him every day. And frankly, she’s inspiring us, too.

“She’s never stopped fighting. She’s never stopped kickin. She has a very strong will to be alive.”

We’re rooting for you, Melissa.

For more about Melissa and her journey, visit Support Melissa Carleton on Facebook.

Written by Jordan K. Turgeon

Melissa and her son, West.