What a brain tumour taught me

I remember the day vividly, April 28 2012. Sitting by my dad’s bedside waiting for his eyes to open. We’d said goodbye 10 hours earlier, the surgery was for a meningioma brain tumour the size of an orange pressing on his brain.

Meningioma tumours aren’t typically malignant but their power is in their size and rate that they grow, and like an octopus the tumour’s tentacles had spread and wound themselves around dad’s ear canal (which was to be removed) and parts of his brain. The bulk was pressing up against the cerebellum which is responsible for coordination, balance, motor control and cognitive function.

The concrete jungle surrounding the hospital

When dad’s eyes opened that afternoon my mother and I were met with relief, but we soon realised his life (and ours) would be different now. The tumour was almost all removed, but the process of taking out the body and tentacles that had been growing for 20 years was highly disruptive and dad’s cerebellum was damaged. Dad could only blink as extremely basic communication, and over the next 4 months he learnt to breath, swallow, think, move his fingers, speak…everything, everything again.

I was in the midst of my PhD when we found out dad had the tumour, studying sustainable building. I was researching office buildings and workplaces, and how indoor environments impact health. The air we breathe, connection to nature, daylight exposure, as well as how various spaces, layouts and designs can impact us both mentally and physically.

I had just finished reading a book called ‘Your Brain on Nature’  highlighting the incredible benefits of nature for the brain. What perplexed me was reading the journal articles on the advancement of the healthcare sector in adopting human-centred design and international recognition of the increased healing times from hospital design features. Studies showed that pictures of nature are better than blank walls, so why was dad’s hospital room so bare?

There were sad views to other buildings out of small windows, no plants and surrounded by a concrete jungle where we’d wheel dad’s chair between the smokers to try and find some sense of nature. So we took it upon ourselves, I plastered pictures of nature in his room, and when possible we took him to the beach and park

Like many offices, hospitals, schools and homes, designs still have a long way to go to seriously build in and maintain the human factors. Since this time I have seen some amazing spaces (including hospitals) that are catering more to human needs, but also some terrible spaces.

I reflected on my dad’s working life, pretty much long office days since his 20s. He was an ambitious and hard working man his whole life, but now he was sick and none of that mattered. It was frustrating knowing how these places impact our health. Hard work doesn’t pay off if it makes you ill.

Whilst there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t grieve for my dad and what he has to go through, I am forever indebted to him because this experience opened by eyes to the possibility. Why are our buildings not making people thrive, and how can we change that?

A visit to the beach to get a nature dose

Sustainability is about a healthy environment and healthy people. It is up to all of us. Think of yourself, your friends and your family in 20 years, what we put into our bodies daily, where we sit daily, what we see, what we breath. We can’t control much in life, but there are some things that we can.The idea behind Rate My Space is to connect people to the science, and the possibilities to create better spaces. We want people to question and challenge the norm.

Because everyone deserves a healthy space, and a healthy life.


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