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Adding “Brain Injury” To The Profile

I get to learn about brains now. Unfortunately, I have to start with my own.

Jon Johnston

Been dead. Have brain damage. Poor short-term memory. Potty mouth. Generally a good attitude about life. Probably won’t remember your name.

I was trying to think of a good profile that I might use for a dating service should Mrs. CN ever decide to leave me. You're supposed to be honest with these things right? What's the point of trying to attract someone if you're not going to be honest with them?

Over the past few months I've been fighting headaches on a nearly daily basis. Sometimes the headaches are not so bad, just a dull pain, and sometimes they are bad enough that I stay in bed in a darkened room.

I know the cause. It’s the dent in my head from when I had my heart attack. Before that, I never had headaches, with the exception of those that weren’t self-induced from alcohol or inability to handle stress properly.

I hoped the headaches might be diet related, so I have tried using more caffeine, no caffeine, sugar, no sugar - you name it. Take all things diet-related and stick them in a list and I’ve tried them. I’ve completely quit drinking alcohol then gone back to the extreme of drinking too much alcohol just to see what happened. If I have one more person tell me I’m not hydrating enough I will kill them.

None of these have had an effect on the headaches so in June I finally had a brain MRI.

I'll spare you the entire test results, because they're not understandable to mere mortals anyway. The short version goes:

Diagnosis from the reading radiologist included demyelinating disease, inflammatory, ischemic, and potentially post traumatic disease.

I have not a friggin’ clue as to what any of that means. I looked up part of it, demyelinating disease, and it terrified me, so I didn’t bother with the rest.

It wasn’t until I read the results that it occurred to me that my brain was damaged from being without blood flow for too long when I was dead. It isn’t lying to myself as much as it is denial. We’re exceptionally good at this as humans.

I feel as if in the short time that I was down that my brain cells got together and decided to start throwing things out. They started with names, and they threw them in a big unordered pile in the middle of the room. Then they deleted all the contextual connections that make memories retrievable - you think of a song, then you think of the car you were driving when you first heard that song, and the girl you were dating then, and then all the places you went. Those connections and the names were but a jumbled mess.

Over the past few months I’ve tried to repair these connections. Some things are just fine, some are just gone.

Last Friday I had an appointment at a traumatic brain injury clinic at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in downtown Minneapolis, and it went very well. I met with a brain rehab specialist and we discussed my problems with short-term memory, headaches, and fatigue.

She asked about irritability.

I said, "You can choose to be happy in any situation, and that’s the choice I’m making."

She commended me on my attitude.

I will meet with a speech language pathologist. The pathologist will help me with energy management and how to, I hope, recover my ability to work on complex problems without exhausting myself. I will go through a four-hour neuropsychological evaluation for different areas of thinking. I was prescribed anti-seizure medication to assist with the headaches.

In other words, help my brain get back to where it was before I had this damn heart attack.

I also met with a neurosurgeon. She informed me they found a spot on my brain that was the equivalent of having a mole on your skin. They don't know what it is, but they will observe it which means I get another brain MRI in six months. She said there was nothing in the MRI to worry about.

The neurosurgeon I met with, Uzma Samadani, is a leader in concussions and traumatic brain injuries. She handed me her business card, and I noticed the URL - on it.

I said, "They named the lab after you."

Her response, "It’s MY lab."

I found this damned funny, maybe because it’s so rare you meet someone with that much stature.

Dr. Samadani is in charge of a study that will gather data from thousands of patients to allow them to detect concussions through eye movement. It was explained to me like this - you can consciously control what you watch with your eyes. You can follow someone's finger or you can look at a bird flying across the sky or whatever you choose. What you cannot control is your eyes moving together simultaneously in following whatever object you're looking at.

Normally if someone has a concussion their eyes don't track an object very well simultaneously. I was informed that this is been known for hundreds of years, that if someone gets their "bell rung" that their eyes would have problems following whatever object they're trying to see.

I enrolled in the eye tracking study. As part of the process I took a verbal concussion test. It required me to answer questions that were easy, such as the date, my name, my birthday, what year it was, and after that the questions became more complex.

I was given a list of five words and asked to repeat them. I wish that I could say that I did stellar at this, but that would be a lie. It was very difficult to remember five words in a row, and I was embarrassed of my inability to do so until the third try. I was asked to name the months of the year backwards which I did fine. I was then given a series of numbers and asked repeat them backwards. The series would increase by one each time I got a correct answer. I think I got to about six numbers and when he spit out seven I told the tester what he could do to himself.

So much for that crap about irritability.

I was then asked to watch two videos which were three minutes and 40 seconds long apiece. The videos were shown on a 19 inch computer screen, but the videos themselves were only about three inches square and moved clockwise around the edges of the computer screen so that you had to follow the video with your eyes to watch it. The first one was a short item about Tennessee college football history and showed some big plays in big games. The second video was by Shakira and was a song that featured a lot of soccer players.

I have to admit that watching both videos wore me out. I went home fatigued and with an extremely bad headache, but at least I have a direction to go.

Thus begins my journey into learning about the human brain. I just wish the main subject wasn’t my own.