Monday, April 7, 2008

BOOK: Another Day in the Frontal Lobe--offers insight into more than the brain

My dad is a crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, retired cop. He's 60, somewhat overweight, somewhat stressed out about nothing in particular from time to time, and the patriarch of our family. He loves making fun of my mother; she looks 20 years younger than her age, and more fit than most college freshmen and has a higher cholesterol profile than him. She eats like a bird; nuts, twigs and chocolate. He eats steak and potatoes, every meal, thank you very much.

My mom called me a few weeks ago to tell me Dad was in intensive care at the hospital. All signs said stroke, but there was no diagnosis. This was Sunday morning. On Tuesday, we were still looking for answers, waiting for some diagnosis, looking to wrap our minds around something. Life or death, we just needed something. It is a feeling only those previously in that situation could relate to. It was a moment when I realized that my stint as child in this family was over and I was taking over as director in training but without any.

In the meantime, Dad's condition went from bad to worse. He went from slurring his speech to slobbering on himself, from awareness of what was happening to none. He lost all feeling and mobility on his right side. He said through spit and slurs that he would be voting for SpongeBob SquarePants in the next election. He became agitated, restless. We watched the monitors and looked for changes, jumping up to find a nurse each time something beeped in the wrong way, each time something looked different from one moment to the next. We prayed. We cried. I called my brother in Iowa City and told him to come. I thought he would die.

None of the tests, and there was a battery of them, showed anything. CT, nothing. MRI, nothing. Spinal tap, nothing. So we waited. On Tuesday, the neurologist confirmed our initial hunches, Dad had a massive stroke, of the vertebral type, although not in the vertebral arteries.
Now they could begin to thin the blood. And we watched, just as miraculously, as things began to improve. At first slowly and then in leaps and bounds.

I picked up Another Day in the Frontal Lobe as I roamed around Border's on that chilly kidless Saturday, thinking that it might offer a new and different perspective on Dad's case not found through the gazillion Google searches I'd already done. And that it did.

It's a unique perspective first on how few neurosurgeons there are out there, in particular of the female type, the grueling years of specialized training, the comraderie (or lack thereof) of the hospital staff, patient care, and finally, a look inside the brain.

They say in writing classes that you should not write about an experience until you've had some time to distance yourself from the event. I've always had mixed feelings about that notion, but I certainly considered from a different angle as I pondered this read. Was it too soon for me to be reading about what happens when a brain is drilled into? Was it too soon for me to know how dire this situation might be long term?

I now answer all of these questions with a definitive no. I read it and felt comforted by all the knowledge and while in parts I felt outrage at some of the "machine" that is our medical system, I also came out of it with an understanding of the demands placed on these professionals and also on the miraculous power of the grey matter between our ears.

Patient advocates are a real and necessary evil. Asking questions is a good idea. But we already knew this. And my generation, this generation of information seekers, knowledge of this type is a powerful, equalizing and even comforting thing. And in some strange and yet very calming sense, I have an understanding of the brain, in particular my Dad's fried portion of his brain, that I didn't previously have.

And stroke or no stroke, it's worth the time and a quick read if you were one of those kids who loved career day in junior high. I can certainly say, it's a far cry from my marketing gig and stressing out over a PowerPoint slide that won't animate correctly.

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