Neurological researcher Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke twelve years ago and became her own experimental subject as she fought her way to recovery. She documents her journey in a book, ‘My Stroke of Insight’.
Although the sporadically discontinuous flow of normal cognition was virtually incapacitating, somehow I managed to keep my body on task. Stepping out of the shower, my brain felt inebriated. My body was unsteady, felt heavy, and exerted itself in very slow motion. What is it I’m trying to do? Dress, dress for work. I’m dressing for work. I labored mechanically to choose my clothes and by 8:15 am, I was ready for my commute. Pacing my apartment, I thought, Okay, I’m going to work. I’m going to work. Do I know how to get to work? Can I drive? As I visualized the road to McLean Hospital, I was literally thrown off balance when my right arm dropped completely paralyzed against my side. In that moment I knew. Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke! And in the next instant, the thought flashed through my mind, Wow, this is so cool!
I felt as though I was suspended in a peculiar euphoric stupor, and I was strangely elated when I understood that this unexpected pilgrimage into the intricate functions of my brain actually had a physiological basis and explanation. I kept thinking, Wow, how many scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain function and mental deterioration from the inside out? My entire life had been dedicated to my own understanding of how the human brain creates our perception of reality. And now I was experiencing this most remarkable stroke of insight!
When my right arm became paralyzed, I felt the life force inside the limb explode. When it dropped dead against my body, it clubbed my torso. It was the strangest sensation. I felt as if my arm had been guillotined off!
I understood neuroanatomically that my motor cortex had been affected and I was fortunate that within a few minutes, the deadness of my right arm subtly abated. As the limb began to reclaim its life, it throbbed with a formidable tingling pain. I felt weak and wounded. My arm felt completely depleted of its intrinsic strength, yet I could wield it like a stub. I wondered if it would ever be normal again.
In a recent interview with reporter, Cassandra M. Bellatoni, Professor Bolte Taylor was asked what advice she would give to the family of Gabrielle Giffords…
CB: What is the most important thing you would tell her family and friends?
JBT: Let her sleep. Speak softly and leave your emotional baggage at the door. They must not bring fear, pity, anger or worry into the room. From my experience with left hemisphere brain damage, I was very much aware of body language, tone of voice, anxiety — these are the abilities of the right hemisphere and these were very active for me. They should think of Gabrielle as a vessel that they need to fill up with their love and caring.
CB: Why is sleep so important? I noticed the doctors said they are waking her regularly.
JBT: This is necessary at first but sleep is the most important thing needed for the brain to heal itself. Sleep is when the body repairs itself including and especially brain connections.
CB: Obviously you have a pretty complex job as a neuro-anatomist. How long did it take you to begin working again?
JBT: At about 4 months after the stroke. I was able to perform simple tasks for about 30-minutes per day — computer database kinds of things. Like I mentioned before, everybody has to let go of who you used to be and embrace who you are now, including Gabrielle.
While it is almost miraculous, and a victory of courage and caring over destruction, that Gabby Giffords can reach out and touch her husband, I am wary of the Great American Heartwarming Recovery Story. Recovery is a credit to the survivor and friends, it does not make the injury ok.
Gabrielle Giffords has been robbed of part of her brain. If she is able to return to Congress, she will be pushing uphill, struggling with tasks that would have been easy before the assault.
We have been robbed of her representation. Hers was a unique voice, she voted her conscience, she is not replaceable. She should be serving in Congress now. Arizona has been robbed of a representative.
It’s a long road to healing for the survivors of the shooting, and for our country.