Protected by Prayer (Fr. Panteleimon Datch of St. Nektarios Monastery, Roscoe, NY) [UPDATED}

NOTE: As a rule of life, most monks get some kind of illness or pain as a cross to carry for the rest of their monastic life. Sometimes, a monk can be gifted with multiple illnesses. Back and knee aches, as well as acid reflux are quite common. Though, it can be anything from chronic athlete’s foot, jock itch, irritable bowel syndrome, menorrhagia, chronic migraines, severe cases of dermatitis or psoriasis, hernias, herniated discs, etc. All the above are quite common in the monasteries.

In three of the mens’ monasteries, there have been severe accidents:

1) At Panagia Vlachernon (FL), Fr. Joseph had his rassa caught in a table saw which dragged his arm in,

2) At Holy Trinity Monastery (MI), a novice from Montreal, also named Joseph, cut off some fingers in a power saw accident (he went back home and is no longer a monk), and

3) At St. Anthony’s Monastery (AZ) Fr. Menas cut off part of a finger in a power saw accident. As well, Fr. Makarios had a heavy item fall on his head from a roof during construction which has left him with permanent brain damage, memory loss, etc.

The following account is by a monk residing at St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Monastery named Fr. Panteleimon (Vasili) Datch. It describes his own personal experience and struggle in bearing the cross of acoustic neuroma while living the monastic life:

Fr. Panteleimon as a novice (Vasili).
Fr. Panteleimon as a novice (Vasili).

In August 2003 at the age of 31, I left the practice of law and became an Orthodox Christian monk. Although my earlier vocation was often exhausting and sometimes required working into the morning hours, as a monk I kept vigil daily from midnight to dawn. We also maintain a complete work and liturgical schedule, all the while attempting to keep a prayer on our lips. Furthermore, we do not eat meat and often fast. Thus, when my initial acoustic neuroma symptoms appeared about six months after I had arrived, I understandably accounted for them as the results of fatigue and diet.

I often heard ringing in my left ear, I had a sharp pain in my neck whenever I tilted my head back and intense chronic headaches, which magnified when I would awake from sleep. After 21⁄2 years of monastic life, I noticed that as I made my prostrations, I would temporarily go blind. The fathers would complain about my forgetfulness, my vertigo began interfering with my work and my blackouts became so frequent that I feared driving. My headaches also had become painful to the point that even the sound of a voice was unbearable.


“…my condition has worsened and I thought the problem was with my brain.”

In March 2006 I went to see a physician in Syracuse. I remember standing as he entered and briefly losing my sight. He noted that, and tested my reflexes, but he never examined my eyes. He concluded that I had calcium in my inner ear, prescribing exercises and Meclizine, and sent me home.

I tried the exercises, but I soon began awaking completely blind. This lasted for about 30 seconds and then I slowly regained my sight. I also remember getting up to answer the door and not being able to see the person who was standing in front of me. Thus, three weeks after my initial appointment, I contacted the doctor again to inform him that my condition had worsened and that I thought the problem was with my brain. He arranged an MRI for me three weeks later in April of 2006 in Syracuse.

Dazed, in pain and frequently losing my vision, I was driven to my appointment. Immediately following the MRI, the doctor contacted me. He informed me that I had a 4 cm acoustic neuroma, a vestibular schwannoma, that was blocking my left ventricle, causing hydrocephalus, and that I would go deaf in one ear. I was rushed to the hospital to be admitted on an emergency basis. After examining my eyes with a penlight, the E.R. doctors immediately discovered that they were bleeding internally from the tremendous pressure of the excess brain fluid. I was in danger of permanently losing my sight and even death; thus within two hours I was being operated on to place a shunt from my head to my abdomen.

After surgery, they kept me in the intensive care unit under 24-hour observation for a week. Considering my symptoms, the doctors were amazed that I had lasted as long as I did without suffering something far worse. It was truly by the grace of God that I was alive and, in relative terms, well. The only explanation I can give for not being blind now, after experiencing blackouts for months, is that I was immersed in continual prayer for the previous three years, and that many continued praying for me. In His mercy and love, God helped me despite the fact that I should have been more diligent in seeking medical attention. I also had fallen into the hands of an extremely experienced neurosurgeon who was willing to sacrifice his personal time to help me.

One week after the shunt was placed, I returned home. My neurosurgeon put me on heavy doses of Decadron to reduce brain swelling before my scheduled AN surgery three weeks later. As the tumor pressed against my cerebellum, I lost sensation on the left side of my face, lost my sense of taste and became increasingly clumsy, being unable even to peel an orange.

My surgeons used the sub-occipital approach, and after 12 hours removed 95% of the tumor, without compromising my facial nerve. Nonetheless, I had very significant facial weakness—my voice was unrecognizable, I could not close my left eye, and I was dizzy and uncomfortable, in addition to the expected tinnitus and deafness.

I underwent physical and occupational therapy for my balance, my face and my voice. In retrospect, therapy for my face and voice was premature, as I had no mobility in my face and my voice had not started to recover yet. I did learn some exercises that I used later, however. I am not sure whether the balance retraining helped at that time.

That summer I took daily walks and continued my exercises. Despite the gold weight, my eye was almost always dry and never closed, for which an ophthalmologist placed a plastic plug in the corner to prevent drainage.

Acoustic Neuroma
Acoustic Neuroma

“As of my last MRI, my tumor has shrunk…”

I always had a headache, and my neurosurgeon prescribed Darvocet to relieve the more unpleasant ones. He performed Gamma Knife surgery on the remaining portion of the tumor in October 2007. As of my last MRI, my tumor has shrunk, still requiring observation for at least the next six years.

In the meantime, I read about the Trans-Ear hearing aid in the ANA Notes Mailbag. This particularly interested me, since between the shunt and the craniotomy I had enough holes already in my skull; thus eliminating the Baha. I would describe Trans-Ear as follows: “It helps, but don’t expect miracles.”With Trans-Ear, I catch things that I would not hear otherwise, although it is ineffective in noisy environments.

I experienced magnified vertigo and nausea and in November 2008, I was directed to the emergency room in case I had a relapse of hydrocephalus. The E.R. physicians found nothing. A week later,my vertigo and nausea peaked. I started to shiver, tremble, hyperventilate and vomit, while losing sensation in my extremities; this continued late into the night. Eventually, thank God, the vomiting ended and I got some rest. It was a disconcerting feeling losing control of my body, but it helped me to pray with a lot of zeal.

Hoping for some extra guidance, I contacted a schoolmate whom now was a neurologist living in Atlanta. My friend referred me to another neurologist who is two hours away in Kingston. He prescribed for me Topomax, thereby reducing my headaches by at least two thirds.

The remaining headaches he continued to treat with Tylenol or Darvocet. I also read in the ANA Notes Mailbag that Effexor may be helpful in treating vertigo. My friend confirmed that he uses this drug in his treatment of vestibular migraines, and that its efficacy is well known and published. I also have started taking Meclizine, upon the recommendation of my doctors, for the nausea and vertigo.

Removal of acoustic neuroma
Removal of acoustic neuroma

“I am convinced that God wants the best for us, although he may occasionally allow difficulties…”

My facial weakness and my voice have greatly improved. Until recently, my voice still tired quickly, though. I underwent a simple procedure called an injection laryngoplasty to remedy this deficiency, wherein an ENT injects calcium crystals into the weak vocal cord to prevent excess vibration and therefore improve the hoarse sounding voice. This is not a permanent solution, and success is not guaranteed. My voice is now almost as clear as it was before my craniotomy, with some limitations.

I have also started an exercise program using a small, portable stair-stepper called the Xiser.™ It helps me both to stay fit and improve my balance.

I am convinced that God wants the best for us, although he may occasionally allow difficulties to improve our character, to avoid a greater evil, to bring us closer to Him or for other reasons that we cannot understand. I am grateful not only to Him but to my doctors, nurses and caregivers, despite occasional human mistakes, and I pray for as many of them as I can remember almost every night.

I try to look at others whose conditions are more serious than mine, to focus on their suffering, and not my temporary problems. I am more aware than ever before of my human weakness and mortality, as the nerves that affected my auditory, facial and vocal nerves, are only the size of mere strings, yet they have permanently altered my life. Regardless, with God’s help, human weakness can be overcome.

Finally, I struggle never to listen to the negative thoughts that sometimes invade my consciousness. I categorize them as enemy and foreign, praying to God to always give me a positive attitude about my recovery and my future.

Vasili Datch as tonsured Rassaphore Monk, Fr. Panteleimon.
Vasili Datch as tonsured Rassaphore Monk, Fr. Panteleimon.

Acoustic Neuroma Association Notes, Issue 113,March 2010, pp. 5-6

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