Joseph Healy sat at his desk at his home office, buried deep in his work. Then he noticed a flicker of movement in the tree out the window. The family cat, who had gone missing, was perched high in the branches. “I was sure it had been eaten, a healthy morsel for a coyote or a fox or a fisher cat,” Healy writes. But instead, there it was, very much alive in the maple.
“This would only take a minute,” he writes, “and my wife — the cat person in my family — would be so relieved that the cat was home and okay.” So Healy leaves his desk, goes outside, fetches an extension ladder. And his life is forever changed.
Instead of climbing the tree, retrieving the cat, and landing in his wife’s good graces, Healy writes, he tumbles from the tree, resulting in significant trauma and a bleed in his brain. In an instant, he joins the one million Americans each year who suffer from a traumatic brain injury (TBI). With news reports of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with TBIs as well as rising awareness of the damage done by repeated sports concussions, we are becoming increasingly aware of the ramifications of such brain damage. But TBIs affect far more than athletes and soldiers; some 50,000 Americans die each year as a result of brain injuries, and some 5.3 million live with disabilities related to TBI.
In Traumatic Brain Injury Handbook: How a Near-Death Fall Led Me to Discover a New Consciousness, Healy offers us a look inside his personal recovery.
There is a wide range in the severity of traumatic brain injury. On the mildest end, a bump on the head may result in a brief period of confusion followed by a quick return to normal. In contrast, Healy’s was no minor mishap. When he is brought into the hospital, he is unconscious and put in a medically induced coma. Then, one day, he awakens. Of this, he recalls being greeted by a nurse as he returned to consciousness, and being told he would start therapy the next day. “My internal reaction was: Okay, if I have to. I didn’t know what the therapy was for.”
The book offers both a broad and entirely personal view of traumatic brain injury. At points, Healy’s writing feels rather clinical and detached, with descriptions of injuries and treatment pulled from online and medical literature. But despite what the literature may offer, Healy writes, “The therapists and doctors told me during my recovery that every TBI is individual, because the operator/patient is unique. My brain operated a certain way prior to my fall and they could not predict how my recovery would be or how completely my ‘normal’ function would return or recover.”
And despite some clinical detachment, Healy gets quite personal. He invokes a sense of awe at how little we really understand about the fundamentals of the mind and what can go awry when we experience a blow to the head.
As he recovered, Healy writes, a conflict arose. He wanted to return to work as a writer and prove himself to others, but he also recognized that things were not quite right, that “something was amiss. I had difficulty finding words,” he writes, “which seemed elusive or at times evasive. I knew I knew the word for which I searched yet I struggled to find it and clamp down on it and spit it out; it hovered just beyond the outer edge of my thoughts.”
The injury spilled over into his relationships, too. “I became quieter and not so quick with opinions or conversation,” Healy writes. “My wife said I seemed unemotional during this period” — and yet, this was “an evasive technique and protective dodge and vain act,” a way to cover up his lack of access to the words he would need to describe his strong emotions.
But in the long run, TBI brought Healy to a new place of clarity. “When I went up that tree,” he writes, “I was a sour, bitter person, generally resentful about my station in life, definitely dissatisfied.” What happened next, he tells us, “was a blessing for me, personally. My fall, described by doctors as near fatal, gave me full appreciation when I woke up of how beautiful and amazing life is and how fortunate I’ve been.”
Traumatic Brain Injury Handbook: How a Near-Death Fall Led Me to Discover a New Consciousness
Skyhorse Publishing, February 2016
Hardcover, 192 pages