Posted on 29 July 2015.
About a month ago, my boyfriend suffered a stroke. Strokes are normally caused by either clotting or hemorrhaging, but in his case, he had both. This complicated the decisions the doctors needed to make about how to help him, but in the end they removed the clot, and then removed more clots and even put in a stent, all the while monitoring the hemorrhage to make sure the blood thinners they gave him didn’t make it worse. And that was all on the first day.
All told, Lawrence spent over two weeks in the hospital including about a week in the ICU. He’s since been moved to a rehab center for about three weeks. He’s there now, as I write this.
In the days after he had his stroke, I recalled Jill Bolte Taylor’s powerful TED talk and rewatched it. She is a neuroscientist who viewed her own massive stroke as an opportunity to do research. I remembered that from when it was screened at a TEDxPeachtree a number of years ago. But what I had forgotten was that it took her eight years to recover. Eight.
Lawrence’s was called a moderate stroke. His damage was all on the right side of the brain, affecting the left side of his body to varying degrees. It also led to different cognitive issues than he would’ve experienced had the damage been on the left side of his brain. Lawrence’s speech was initially difficult to understand and he was very sleepy, but neither impacted his ability to connect meaning and language. In fact, when I pulled out a pad and pen and asked him – while still in the ICU – if he thought he could write, he did — “I haven’t had any problems organizing thoughts or writing messages.”
But at the same time, as I’ve alluded to in the daily blog I’ve been keeping on his progress, he’s had moments of confusion. Truth is, he is sometimes convinced he is at home, and when I show him he is not, he understands logically, but…
I wanted to find other TED or TEDx talks that could help explain. And what I found was interesting. But it also pointed out how much more there is to learn.
In Vilayanur Ramachandran’s talk on three clues on understanding your brain he gives examples of what we’ve learned from specific kinds of damage. What he found out about phantom limbs (that they’re actually learned paralysis following the period of time of non-movement before the limb is removed) and that visual input has a critical role, actually has an application for stroke, and I’m wondering how I can apply his findings to my boyfriend’s as yet unresponsive left arm, that magically moves whenever he yawns.
In Iain McGilchrist’s presentation on the divided brain, (above) he dispels the myth of reason vs emotion residing in different halves of the brain, but makes the point that the left brain is more connected to the concrete and specific and the right to relationships and how we fit into the world. I am not clear on how what is happening to Lawrence works with this, but found it fascinating nonetheless.
I understand that the moments Lawrence is experiencing should go away within a few months as the brain “rewires” itself, but I had no idea how amazingly adaptable the brain is. Michael Merzenich’s talk on the growing evidence of brain plasticity spends most of the time explaining how the brain adapts for each of the specific skills we gain and how that makes us unique, but also shows how damage and natural age-related deterioration can be staved off by exercising our brain more. Hmmm…that got me thinking…just how much we could all gain by watching more TED talks and by attending this year’s TEDxPeachtree.
Wendy Kalman attended the 2009 TEDxPeachtree event and became hooked, volunteering each year ever since. By day, she works as a Proposal Manager, and by night, her alter ego as involved parent, engaged volunteer, music lover, and Facebook addict emerges.