writing down the sun

strokes, part two

Posted in spirit, the brain by annie on March 13, 2008

The universe’s sense of timing continues to amaze me.

Just a day or so ago, I wrote about how the media is focusing on women and strokes. And then yesterday, I got an email prod from TED that … well. Let me back up a bit.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. But it’s so much more than just some pseudo-intellectual group of glad-handing self-congratulatory “thinkers.” TED’s the real deal.

Once a year, TED gathers to listen to thinkers on the forefront of their fields give “the talk of their lives” in 18 minutes.  And then TED puts the video — professionally edited and tightly-shot — online, for all to see and hear. TED does some other stuff that’s laudable and fantastic (choosing three individuals each year to “dream big” and helping them achieve those big dreams — that’s probably my favorite part of TED’s mission).

But it’s those videos I want to come back to for a moment. One in particular, from a lady named Jill Boite Taylor, a neuroanatomist who had what she calls “a stroke of insight.”

Jill’s story begins informally and amusingly enough with a light-hearted, self-deprecating recount of  her recognition one morning that something really wasn’t quite right, and her growing awareness that the “not right” was actually “very very wrong” — she was having a massive stroke.

Jill humorously recounts her travels back and forth between the two hemispheres of her brain as the left side — the one now housing that massive bleed — went on and off line, taking with it the awareness of just how dire her predicament really was.

But somewhere around the 13:40 mark, the whole tone of this talk changes. It is not funny anymore.

It’s serious — but more than “life and death.” It’s humanity.  And it’s something you really need to see to fully understand why you need to see it.

In college, my freshman year, our theater department presented a play about a woman having a stroke. I wasn’t in it — I think I did usher one night, though — but despite the quality of the production (and it was high — I went to Catawba College, now recognized as one of the nation’s leading college theater programs), I found it impossible to watch.

The reason was my dad, of course. He’d been the victim of a stroke my junior year in high school. Dad had been on a business trip, as had my mom. They both came home the same day — a Friday. The dog, Digby, went a bit nuts over Dad, which was odd — barking madly, whining, and generally making a nuisance of himself around Dad’s feet. When Dad went into the bathroom, Digby sat outside the door and cried until he came out.

Dad did look tired, I thought, but in typical self-obsessed teenage fashion, I thought no more of it — not even when Mom reported to me that Dad had gotten so sick while driving on his trip that he’d had to open the door, lean halfway out and throw up right on the road while sitting at an intersection with a green light, with all the other cars’ drivers honking at him.

Mom had had a flat tire outside the city limits; she’d left it there, and caught a ride with someone else — that night, Dad went with her to go change the tire.  Two hours later, my brother Tom called from the ER where he was working a shift as a paramedic. He’d gotten a call for a gurney in the parking lot; when he wheeled the gurney outside, he discovered his patient was his father.

We found out later that Dad’s stroke, lumbering in his brain all week, exploded while he was kneeling down on the side of the dusty Wilson County road changing my mom’s tire. Somehow — I never knew how, and I’m not sure she did either — my mother finished changing the tire, dragged my father into the car, and got him to the hospital (where she was assistant director of nursing) — a 20-mile drive — within 20 minutes.

He eventually recovered sufficiently to live independently — which he did, moving to Topsail Island in a tiny, cramped, chaotically-messy trailer my senior year.

Dad didn’t have any spiritual epiphanies, as far as I know, after his stroke. I wish he had. Jill did, and she speaks of it with poetic purity and elegance.