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One Year After My Death, The Show Goes On

It’s been one year ago today that I died of a massive heart attack. I’m now progressing through the brain injury segment of recovery, but thankfully life goes on.

The American Heart Association and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Indiana Unveil Hands-Only CPR Training Kiosk at Indianapolis International Airport Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images for American Heart Association

One Year Later…..

It’s been one year today since I dropped dead of a massive heart attack, yet somehow survived to tell the tale.

I am now progressing through the traumatic brain injury (TBI) segment of my journey. I have two types of brain injury. One is from a severe blow to the head that happened during my event. It left a dent in the top of my head.

The other is anoxic, or what happens when you your brain is deprived of oxygen for too long. Apparently I was dead or in a near-death state long enough that my brain was effected.

I met with a speech pathologist.* The first meeting was an interview to discover what my complaints were; what I noticed about myself and where I have problems. I was asked to rate each area she asked about - if you’ve ever seen Brian Regan’s comedy bit about how you’d rate your pain and dealt with the same in the hospital, you know what I’m talking about.

I have an appointment to do a four hour neuropsychological evaluation in September to determine which parts specifically of my brain have been damaged. I look forward to it, but I am a little hesitant and apprehensive about what the report might yield.

I've had a hearing test, a vestibular test, and something called a sensory organization test. All of these were to test my hearing and balance. I passed all of them, but now my wife and children know that I ignore them.

For the most part I am intact. I have glitches in memory. I wear down more easily and get headaches when trying to solve complex problems; troubling because it’s a big part of my job.

I met with my cardiologist, Dr. Lou Kohl, recently. He was very interested in my impressions of the HCMC TBI Clinic. He was interested because he said my referral was the first they’d done between the departments and it was a new type of collaboration they were doing with the brain injury clinic.

I was somewhat shocked as to why they weren’t doing this before. From my perspective it seemed that a referral from cardiology to the brain clinic would be something that, while not necessarily commonplace, certainly shouldn’t be anything new.

I asked, “Why wasn’t this done before? It seems like something that would have been around for a while.”

“Because were starting to see more people like you".

“What do you mean people like me?”

“People who survive what you’ve been through.”

He explained that in the past they’d been surprised that a patient would survive the severity of the heart attack I’d experienced, so much so that no one thought about referring that patient to the TBI clinic if they had a potential brain injury, they’d just been happy and thankful that the person had lived.

He surmised that more people were surviving because the Emergency Medical System (EMS) is getting better. Or it could be that there are more AEDs (portable defibrillators) out there, or because more people are learning CPR.**

We also had a discussion about uncertainty. Uncertainty comes into play in every health-related diagnosis. It comes into play when determining whether I continue to take some of my medications. It’s in play when I wonder whether my glitches are permanent, will head with time, or what medications and methods I need to use to counteract or make up for them. It comes into play because each of us is different, with different genes, a different history, diet, and culture (to name a few things).

That’s not the way it’s portrayed in hospital shows. They meet a near-death patient, spend 45 minutes making diagnoses until they reach the one that’s correct, and the last shot we see of that patient is of them in recovery or going home. We are left with the impression that the medical profession and its technology can solve any problem.

That’s not the way it’s portrayed in mass media articles, either. Those media articles tend to be personal interest stories, not factual stories intended to elicit honest discussions about health issues. Media articles never convey a sense of uncertainty, but it’s there in every doctor, clinic, and hospital trip you make.

We know hearts. The amount the medical profession has learned about hearts in the past two decades and the accompany technology is astounding. I’ve been dead, my sternum and ribs broken, induced into a coma, spent 11 days in the hospital and I have not a single scar.

But brains? We don’t know brains. Earlier in my visits to Dr. Kohl, I complained about why he couldn’t help with my headaches.

“I”m a cardiologist.”

“You’re still a doctor. You mean to tell me you can’t tell me anything about my brain?”

“Brains? Brains are hard.”

In the past few months I’ve learned more about the brain, mostly to help me understand myself. I’ve read books on mindfulness, flow, neurology (loosely, I’m not a doctor!), and behavior. Dr. Kohl’s response was facetious***, but indicative of where the medical profession appears to be in the understanding of our brains.

There’s a lot more uncertainty in dealing with brains. Are my glitches permanent? Will I get early onset dementia from my injury? Why do I hate peanut butter so much when I liked it before, while I now like guacamole and before couldn’t stand to be in the same room with an avocado? When will these headaches go away? Why is it so damned difficult for me to remember new names? Why is it I frequently use a homonym instead of the word I intended in the first place?

While I’ve only started with the TBI clinic, one gets the impression that a psychic would be more certain in their diagnosis, because the psychic’s believability is based on portraying confidence more than reality. The lack of certainty is frustrating, again, because these are not the expectations I have from watching so many fictionalized medical shows on TV.

Not only is there more uncertainty in brains, but one gets the impression relative to the rest of medicine that our level of knowledge of how our brains actually function is comparable to the bronze age relative to modern warfare; that it’s barely started. This shouldn’t be shocking as we consider ourselves humans instead of computers, but again, there’s that expectations versus reality thing that comes into play again.

What I do know with no lack of uncertainty is that I’ve been fortunate.

Dr. Kohl mentioned that there had been another person referred to the TBI clinic from cardiology. That person cannot create new memories.

Taking that into account, along with what’s happened with Sam Foltz, Mike Sadler, and knowing other families who have lost young people to accidents, drugs, and violent crime, this past year hasn’t been hard.

This past year has been a blessing.

* Why a speech pathologist? Speech pathologists deal with any kind of cognitive injury, that is, anything to do with thinking.

** Dr. Kohl brought up a study regarding Denmark and the survival rate in heart attacks after they’d taught CPR in public schools. You should look it up.

*** I want to make it clear that Dr. Kohl has been an excellent cardiologist. He and I banter back and forth in jest probably more than most doctors/patients do, but I don’t you to see as anything but very professional, honest, and pretty good at what he does. I might be biased. He helped save my life.

**** I haven’t used asterisks in most of my writing. I use parens. Maybe this is more annoying, I don’t know. You can comment on that as well.