Thursday, November 9, 2006

Are you the patient or am I? -- jcarolek

When my son was one month shy of 17, he had a head-on collision, caused by an epileptic seizure. We did not know he had epilepsy at the time, and, oddly enough, according to the neurologists, his epilepsy was a typical childhood “form” which is essentially “outgrown” as an adult. He just happened to have a grand mal seizure before he “outgrew” it. I am not an expert on epilepsy, but my brother Ted was diagnosed with it at the age of 23 and my sister-in-law, my son’s aunt, was diagnosed with it at age 18. Both apparently had it as children, but, again, nobody knew until their first grand mal seizure. This, however, is not germane to the story I wish to relate, save the fact that this head-on collision resulted in Stephen being airlifted
to Norfolk General Hospital Trauma Unit, where he remained in a coma for 17 hours.

When he came out of the coma, the evidence of his injuries began to be apparent, to even the most casual observer. He had suffer frontal and temporal lobe brain damage, and the effects were a profound loss of memory (amnesia), loss of a great deal of language skills (big words like Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation rolled off his tongue easily, but simple nouns like spoon, table, bed, etc. were gone) and incredible compulsiveness.

Once he was out of medical danger from the injuries sustained, the challenge was to deal with the overgrown two-year old I now had on my hands. Well, to be honest, the neurologists explained that while he was nearly 17, his cognitive skills were that of a 9 year old. But his lack of memory and his compulsiveness made him more like a two year old. He had to be watched.

One problem was that he recognized people’s faces but did not know their names. One evening, about 10 days after the accident, a group of about five girls came to visit Steve. Now, these girls had to drive over an hour to the hospital, so I was pretty impressed with their commitment. They came in and sweetly sat and stood around Steve, who still had no understanding that he was in the hospital, or that anything was wrong with him. As was typical of that time, this visit proved to be a time of laughter, because frankly, Steve was amusing.

The girls all came in with somber faces, smiling nervously and telling Steve they hoped he would get well soon. He beamed back at they with his two black eyes cut nose and three broken teeth. He looked directly at one girl and said,

“I know you but I don’t know your name.”

She laughed nervously and said,

“Stephen! I’m Sarah!”

He looked at her and said, in all seriousness,

“No…I don’t think that’s right.”

Now Sarah was laughing as she said,

“Stephen. I’m Sarah Bateman. I’ve sat next to you for six years playing saxophone in Band.”

Again, Stephen looked at her,

“I’ll ask Mom, she’ll know your name.”

And so we all just laughed. Steve laughed too, not because he had a clue what was so funny, but because we were laughing.

Another day, his father was visiting him. His dad had just begun filling out paperwork the social worker had given him, when the neurologist called him in to have a meeting. His dad gave Steve the paperwork and told him to complete it (what WAS he thinking??) Well, Steve tried, but was stumped by the first question:

“Patient’s Name?”

Stephen got out of his bed and walked to the room where his father was meeting with the neurologist. He popped open the door and said,

“Dad, are you’re the patient, or am I?”

There were many times when crying might have been the normal choice in the given circumstance, but there was something so genuinely happy about Stephen, even though he didn’t have a clue, and his personality had changed overnight from a quiet, introspective child into a noisy, outgoing, headstrong kid, that his happiness was contagious.

In later months, as the brain healed, the agitation that is a normal part of that process brought great tests of our endurance, and his. I am happy to know that my son is happy and healthy and living a normal life in spite of this 30 second blip in time which caused such a change in many lives.

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