16: Road to a New Path

16: Road to a New Path

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

Road to a New Path

Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.

~Ludwig van Beethoven

There was no precipitation and, in fact, the sun was shining. At least that is what I was told. I could not see outside. I could see and hear only the faces of strangers who seemed at once both kind and distant as they began to hover around me in increasing numbers. I had just noticed that they all seemed to be wearing white outfits when one of them, the only gentleman in the group, leaned in closer to my face and said, “Good afternoon! How are you feeling today?”

Although I wanted to immediately respond with a heartfelt “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” the words stopped somewhere before my breath could awaken my vocal chords. Suddenly, the idea of saying anything seemed somehow premature since I was gradually realizing that not only did I not know to whom I was speaking, I also did not know where I was. Without an outside view, I could not confirm that it was indeed afternoon or that it was any specific day. I also was at a loss to identify any certain way that I felt as opposed to other ways that I could feel. I certainly could feel no pain but I could not be clear about how I felt about anything else around me.

Through the hushed whispers in the room, I heard unfamiliar electronic sounds. Just as I decided that any attempt at producing an intelligible utterance was not a good plan, I heard a distant female voice say, “He’s back with us! He just woke up a moment ago.” One by one, the people to my left, who I now recognized as medical staff members, took a half step to one side or the other as the first familiar face appeared.

“Hi, honey!” said my mother as she approached my bedside.

“Why am I here?” I asked as I began to remember that I had classroom assignments due back at the university. I also had to finish preparing for a program that was scheduled to take place at our church, the rehearsal being the reason that I had driven home that Friday.

“Well . . .” she started out, obviously trying her best to sound calm and reassuring. “Honey, there’s been a little accident.”

“An accident? Was I in it? Is that why I’m here?” I responded, trying hard to let my voice show more curiosity than anxiety.

“Yes,” she said, letting her voice pitch rise just a bit, something she always did when she wanted to let her listener know that there was more to be told.

“Was anyone badly hurt?” I asked, knowing that her answer could either fulfill my worst fears or put them to rest.

Before answering, she looked briefly toward the stethoscope-clad gentleman who had asked the first question. He nodded his approval for her to proceed with more details. Slowly she related the events of the days preceding my awakening, beginning with my departure from the church rehearsal as I headed out onto the highway for the twenty-mile drive back to campus. I was informed that I had been in a coma for two days with a brain injury and a fractured skull resulting from a head-on collision with another car even smaller than my AMC Rambler. It turned out that the other driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, crossed the center line, and suffered injuries nearly identical to my own as he crashed into me on the two-lane highway that connected the two cities.

At first, I was frightened, saddened and depressed that this occurrence might very well leave me with serious and permanent disabilities and could spell the end of my collegiate endeavors—no more singing in choirs and stage shows, no more acting or dancing in stage productions, no more summers teaching swim classes or sitting on lifeguard stands, and I might have to abandon my dreams of becoming a professional performer, completing a music therapy degree, and traveling to other countries.

However, the staff and my dad had other plans. There were two nurses, one of whom could not have been even five feet tall, who daily stood on each side of me while I practiced learning to walk again. After all, my motor skills were a shadow of what they had been before the accident.

No one was more surprised than I when I was able to return to classes after only one week in the hospital. Not only was I able to fully recover and complete my senior year, but my dad accepted an out-of-court settlement that provided enough funds for me to spend the next summer in Europe as a member of the University Division of People-to-People.

I did enter the field of music therapy and eventually became a college professor and published researcher. After extensive study to try to understand my own recovery, I carefully prepared a proposal for a theoretical model designed to explain why brain injury-induced aphasia sufferers recover language skills after participating in music. I was more than surprised when my presentation was accepted for inclusion in a major international conference on music and rehabilitation in New York City. After all, not only was what I was suggesting not mainstream thinking in the world of medicine, it could easily be seen as downright radical since there was absolutely no research to support it. Still, I flew off to the city knowing that if I met too much opposition, I could always play the naïve novice card since the ink on my doctoral diploma had been dry for less than a year.

My short talk included hand-drawn brain diagrams projected onto a screen. To my surprise, my presentation was met with great enthusiasm, as it appeared that the medical professionals in attendance seemed to have been searching for a way to understand the phenomenon of speech recovery following music participation. I had suggested that music helps the brain engage in what I decided to call “functional plasticity,” a process that has since been confirmed through research and has replaced the old “abuse it and lose it” brain theory of a quarter century ago. Consequently, I now travel to all corners of the earth speaking about the use of music to stimulate neuroplasticity in brain injury patients.

Although I could not have realized it at the time, the car crash provided direction and a solid foundation for the rest of my academic and professional life. What seemed at first to be a tragic occurrence, I now see as a blessing and I am more than thankful it occurred.

~Dale B. Taylor

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