92: Brain Drain

92: Brain Drain

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

Brain Drain

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

~Socrates

When I was a teenager, life was complicated. To quiet my mind and impose some structure on my life, I dove into the world of math and physics. I loved the foundational meta-galactic language and the beauty and finesse of formulas. The big picture transported me away from the conflict in my life circumstances, and eventually led me to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

I loved the “little city”; I finally felt safe and secure, appreciated for what I had to offer, and never judged for what I could not provide. I reveled at my post in the spectrometry lab, some days getting lost in the tasks at hand and rarely thinking beyond my workspace. Eventually, though, the director encouraged me to move beyond the walls of the compound into a world populated by people my own age: college. I was terrified.

Months later, I had found a new comfort zone, pre-med at UCSD’s Revelle College. I fully immersed myself in all that I loved, consuming calculus, physics, and biology. I added classes in dance and drama to round out my schedule, and it was there that I met the man I would later marry.

As with all things in my life, I moved through at warp speed. I juggled my courses, roommates, and relationship, trying to find a healthy balance. Fairly quickly, it was clear that I would graduate early and after only three years, enter medical school.

Or so I thought. On February 5, 1983, on the afternoon of our engagement party, my fiancé and I picked up our cake and headed to my parents’ home. Just two miles from their house, a driver trying to enter the road from a side street failed to heed the stop sign. In an effort to avoid killing the driver, I sped up and moved around the front of his vehicle. I successfully avoided the T-bone, but when I braked, my Mustang spun out of control. Nearly three blocks later, we crashed into a parked car. Even though I’d been strapped in with a five-point harness, the impact caused me to burst through the seat belt and lurch forward towards the front windshield. Hitting the steering wheel, I was then launched into the back, striking the rear window. After impact, I was again thrown forward, coming to rest as my head struck the driver door.

Everything was a blur. The owner of the vehicle called my parents and they came to get us. Someone called a tow truck, and we went on to the party. One of the guests at the engagement party was a doctor and I was given muscle relaxants and a glass of wine. I remember nothing of the party or much of the time that followed. Just days later, my parents loaned us a car and we returned to college.

I remember the day I returned to class and looked up as my professor wrote integrals on the black board. It was in that moment that I knew something was terribly wrong. None of the scribbles made any sense to me—even the calculus concepts seemed like a foreign tongue rather than the language I had come to love. Frightened, I rushed off to my next class—only to find that the formulas of physics were equally strange to my injured brain. Panicked, I returned home trying to understand what was happening to me. I tried to sleep, remembering that someone had told me that rest would help me heal. But sleep was filled with nightmares of the accident replaying over and over again.

The following day, I returned to campus by way of a tree-lined road. As the sun flickered through the trees rhythmically, I started to feel nauseous. I pulled to the side of the road to vomit, growing very concerned about this new symptom. By the day’s end, I found myself unable to express my thoughts accurately—struggling to produce rudimentary language. It was then that I made the decision to seek help.

The following morning, a nurse practitioner examined me and ordered a CT scan. She evaluated my symptoms and proclaimed that I’d experienced whiplash and a bad concussion. She suggested that with rest, it was likely that my symptoms would abate and that things would return to normal. After all, I was only nineteen.

But they didn’t. Very soon, it became clear that medical school was no longer in my future. Math and physics were like ghosts in my wounded brain—I could still remember how much I loved them, but their elements were nowhere to be seen. They literally meant nothing to me. The dean recommended that I consider another big picture science in order to complete my education and keep moving forward. I changed my major to psychology and began to grieve.

Over time, I uploaded new language to manage the minimal aphasia that resulted from my brain injury. Six hours into my day, words would begin to fade and I would find myself mute, seeing the images of words in my mind, but unable to generate speech. Eventually, as I learned more language, the duration of fluency grew and I could make it through an entire day of class. But, when tired or stressed, I would again find myself mute.

I wish that the aphasia was all that resulted from the accident, but time revealed other, much more extensive impairments. Unfortunately for me, my physicians failed to speak with one another, so all of my symptoms were considered separately—resulting in hormone destabilization, a sleep disorder, the inability to control body temperature and cholesterol, full body spasms resembling grand mal seizures and eventually repeated pregnancy losses. By the time my symptoms were considered together, I had endured far more than the loss of a promising career.

Despite the blow I was dealt, I didn’t give up. I threw myself into the development of new lingual and cognitive strategies. I designed and implemented alternate career plans. I went to graduate school and successfully earned both masters and doctoral degrees—all with a brain drained of its contents and uploaded anew. After licensure, I found myself working more and more often with other trauma survivors, eventually specializing in the field. And, after almost a decade, I found an endocrinologist who listened to all my seemingly unrelated symptoms and told me that I was going to be okay. She contacted a neurologist she’d worked with many times, and scheduled an evaluation. Unlike any of the other doctors I’d seen, he was able to evoke the symptoms, label and define the affected areas of the brain, then ordered the MRI to document the damage.

I began a regimen of medications and in three months’ time, felt better than I had in sixteen years. My sleep and mood improved drastically, my hormones stabilized, my cholesterol returned to near normal levels, and for the first time in many years, I realized that recovery from brain injury could be achieved. Sometimes my patients still have to finish my sentences at the end of the day, but it’s a small price to pay for what could have cost me my life.

~Sage de Beixedon Breslin, Ph.D

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